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USDA accused of misleading public on mad cow

(Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Mark Kaufman, Washington Post: After a month-long investigation, the Republican and Democratic leaders of a key congressional committee yesterday accused the Agriculture Department of misleading the public about a central fact in the nation's first known case of mad cow disease.

Since federal officials announced in December that an animal had tested positive for mad cow disease, they have consistently said the animal was a "downer," an ailing animal that could not walk. The USDA national surveillance system for mad cow disease is based primarily on sampling brain tissue of downer cows.

But an inquiry by the House Committee on Government Reform reported yesterday that three eyewitnesses to the slaughter of the sick animal have testified that it was not a "downer" and did not appear to be sick at all.

In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman, the committee's chairman, Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), and its ranking Democrat, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (Calif.), said the new information "could have serious implications for both the adequacy of the national [mad cow] surveillance system and the credibility of the USDA."

The issue of whether the animal was a downer is important in the ongoing debate about how much testing and surveillance of the American cattle herd is required now that mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), has been found.

The UDSA has said that recently expanded surveillance and sampling of downer and other sick animals is sufficient, while importers of American beef in Japan, South Korea and elsewhere have said it is not. In addition, an international panel of experts created by the USDA concluded earlier this month that the American surveillance system was not broad enough, but the recommendation was hotly rejected by American cattlemen.

"For the chairman, this boils down to an issue of public awareness and public trust in government," committee spokesman David Marin said on behalf of Davis, who is in Iraq.

"If indeed it is true that the only . . . infected cow in the nation was walking around, then clearly it's not safe to assume that all infected cattle will be downers," Marin said. "That in turn has serious implications for the Agriculture Department's surveillance program and serious ramifications for the information that has been shared with the public."

USDA spokeswoman Julie Quick said yesterday that the department will not comment on the letter but that it is "important to get to the bottom of this issue." She said the USDA inspector general's office opened an investigation several weeks ago into the question of whether the infected animal was a downer.

Quick said the USDA based its conclusion that the animal was a downer on the report of an agency veterinarian at the scene when the animal arrived at the slaughterhouse. He reported that the cow was a downer, but the slaughterhouse co-manager, Thomas A. Ellestad, said that the animal stood up in the delivery truck soon after the vet left and that the animal walked to slaughter.

For the USDA, identifying the animal as a downer allowed the agency to say its surveillance system -- which focuses on visibly sick animals -- was working. It also conveyed a reassuring message to the public that diseased meat could be readily identified and kept away from consumers.

In their letter to Veneman, Davis and Waxman said they had reviewed affidavits or statements from Ellestad; from Randy Hull, who trucked the cow to slaughter; and from David Louthan, who killed the animal. All three said that the animal was ambulatory and showed no signs of sickness. While the statement from Hull is new, Ellestad told reporters at his slaughterhouse, Vern's Moses Lake Meats, that the animal was not a downer soon after the mad cow infection was found in December.

In their letter to Veneman, the committee leaders also reported that Ellestad provided a contract showing that he did not accept downer cows for slaughter, and Hull provided one saying that he did not haul them. The committee letter also introduced a Jan. 6 letter faxed by Ellestad to USDA officials in Boulder stating that the brainstem sample that tested positive for mad cow disease was not sent because the animal was a downer, but because of a preexisting contract that his business had with the USDA to provide a supply of brain tissue samples.

Davis and Waxman pointedly wrote that the Jan. 6 fax had not been released to Congress or the public, and concluded that "if it is confirmed the BSE-infected cow was not a downer, public confidence in USDA may suffer."

The letter cited reassuring public statements made by Veneman soon after the diseased animal was found. On Dec. 24, the secretary said on NBC's "Today" show that "the cow had difficulty standing on its own, which is why it was a downer cow. My understanding . . . is that this cow had given birth, and that it had not been able to get up since then."

The new information contradicting that account released by the committee was "checked and double-checked," said Marin, the committee spokesman. He said that some of the new testimony came directly to the committee and some was made to a Washington state senate committee. Ellestad's long affidavit was written with the help of the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit organization that usually works with government whistle-blowers.

Marin said the committee did not believe that the USDA veterinarian who called the cow a downer was being deceptive. "He may have seen what he said he saw," Marin said. "But others saw something different."