WASHINGTON – U.S. Department of Agriculture officials Wednesday defended a new program that monitors mad cow disease in the United States,saying they have fixed many of the flaws found in its previous version.
“I do believe that the food supply is safer today,” said Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman,responding to members of Congress who questioned its validity. “We have done everything that we can to give as much information as we can to the public and maintain our credibility.”
Veneman and two other USDA officials testified for three hours before a joint hearing of the House Committees on Government Reform and Agriculture. She said an expanded testing program and tighter procedures for handling sick cattle should reassure the public that beef is safe to eat.
Questions about the surveillance program's credibility arose in May last year when an investigation by USDA Inspector General Phyllis Fong found that a USDA veterinarian mishandled a cow showing signs of the disease in San Angelo,Texas. The cow's carcass was sent to a rendering plant and later discarded.
Veneman said the department is working to enhance monitoring,and the new program will test as many animals as possible. USDA officials also acknowledged that their guarantee of catching at least one cow even if only five were infected in the United States might be flawed.
“We have agreed that we are going to look at this issue analytically,” said Keith Collins,USDA's chief economist. “It's an unsettled business.”
Collins also said it's important to find a balance between trying to protect the cattle industry while informing the general public. He added that,of the 17,000 cattle screened so far,only two have yielded even inconclusive results. Further tests found no trace of the disease.
“If we don't put any information out and it leaks … we would be criticized,” he said.
Veneman said costs for increasing cattle surveillance and identification under the new program won't be “excessive” and that identification is key to finding out the source of the disease if an animal gets infected.
While some committee members hammered the officials with concerns,others said the issue has received more press coverage than it deserves.
“The desire to reassure is trumping the obligation to tell the truth,” said Rep. Henry Waxman,D-Calif. He said what beef industry officials say is good prevention might be a “stroke of luck.”
Rep. Doug Ose,R-Calif.,holding up a list showing the increased number of cattle being screened,said the issue is being blown out of proportion.
“For the first time since 1992,the USDA is on the job,” he said.
The first case of mad cow disease was discovered in Europe in 1986. In the United States,only one infected cow has been found,in Washington State in December. There is no cure for the illness,which can be transmitted to humans who eat infected meat.
Last year,20,543 cows were tested for mad cow disease in the United States. The expanded surveillance system,launched June 1,has screened 17,000 animals so far,Veneman said,and the goal is to check 268,000 animals in the next 18 months.
The screenings will focus on high-risk cows; those 30 months or older that show signs of mad cow ailments or die from unknown cause. The USDA estimates that there are some 45 million U.S. cattle at least 30 months old.
The USDA will monitor cows from farms,slaughterhouses,rendering facilities,livestock auctions,veterinary clinics and diagnostic and public health laboratories. In addition,some 20,000 apparently healthy cattle also will be screened.
Addressing committee members who asked why all cows aren't tested,Veneman said there's “no scientific justification to test all animals.”