Sunday, June 26, 2005

AP reports on the politics of mad cow testing

USDA reported Friday afternoon that the U.S. born cow we discussed earlier had mad cow disease (BSE). Libby Quaid of the Associated Press has a fascinating story about USDA's internal politics leading up to this admission.

WASHINGTON - A third and more sophisticated test on the beef cow suspected of having mad cow disease would have helped resolve conflicting results from two initial screenings, but the U.S. refused to perform it in November. That additional test, ordered up by the Agriculture Department's internal watchdog, ended up detecting mad cow — a finding that was confirmed on Friday by the world's pre-eminent lab, in England.

Only 18 months ago, the department had used the Western blot test to help uncover the first American case of the brain-wasting illness in cows. The department is pledging that, from now on, it will conduct such testing on suspicious animals. U.S. officials in November had declared the cow free of the disease even though one of two tests — an initial screening known as a rapid test — indicated the presence of the disease. A more sophisticated follow-up — immunohistochemistry, or IHC — came back negative.

"They had two diametrically opposed results which begged to be resolved," said Paul W. Brown, a former scientist at the National Institutes of Health who spent his career working on mad cow-related issues. "If you had what they had, you would immediately go to a Western blot and get a third test method and see which one of the previous two was more accurate," Brown said.

Consumer groups and scientists urged the department to perform a Western blot test and seek confirmation from the lab in Weybridge, England. In a letter to Consumers Union last March, the department said there was no need for the British lab to confirm the results and that the Western blot test would not have given a more accurate reading. "We are confident in the expertise of USDA's laboratory technicians in conducting BSE testing," wrote Jere Dick, an associate deputy administrator. Mad cow disease is medically known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE.

Troubled by the conflicting test results, the department's inspector general, Phyllis Fong, ordered the Western blot test this month. By the time an aide notified Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, the testing was under way. The testing was positive. The department then sent tissue samples to the British lab, which subjected the samples to all the tests again.

Johanns, amid an uproar from the cattle industry, was irked that she did so without his knowledge or consent. "From my standpoint, I believe I was put there to operate the department and was very disappointed," he told reporters Friday morning. By that afternoon, the verdict from Britain was in: The cow had mad cow disease....

Thanks to Radio News America for the AP link. The Center for Media and Democracy has been covering the BSE issue for a long time, and has some comments on the media-savvy timing of Johanns' announcement on Friday: How to Bury a Mad Cow.

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