Sun, Dec 28, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Inadequate US meat inspection sparks concerns

By Donald G. McNeil Jr.  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

As the American beef industry struggles with its first case of mad cow disease, the Department of Agriculture is debating whether to do far more screening of meat and change the way meat from suspect animals is used, department officials say.

The officials declined to say exactly what they would recommend, but acknowledged that European and Japanese regulators screened millions of animals using tests that take only three hours, fast enough to stop diseased carcasses from being cut up for food.

US inspectors have tested fewer than 30,000 of the roughly 300 million animals slaughtered in the last nine years, and they get results days or weeks later.

But the American system was never intended to keep sick animals from reaching the public's refrigerators, said Dr. Ron DeHaven, the Agriculture Department's chief veterinarian. It is "a surveillance system, not a food safety test," Dr. DeHaven said in an interview on Wednesday. Statistically, it is meant to ensure finding the disease only if it exists in one in a million animals, and only after slaughter.

A beef industry spokesman said on Wednesday that cattlemen would endorse adopting more rapid tests. Western European countries generally test all cattle over two years old, all sick cattle and a small percentage of apparently healthy ones. Last year, they tested 10 million cows. Japan tests all the cows it slaughters each year, 1.2 million. Dr. DeHaven said Japan tested too much, "like a doctor testing every patient who comes through the door for prostate cancer."

On Thursday the Agriculture Department said that it had received confirmation of its own tests from the Veterinary Laboratories Agency in Waybridge, England, that a Holstein cow that was slaughtered on Dec. 9 had the degenerative brain ailment bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. More testing is planned. An official close to the investigation said the cow came from Sunny Dene Ranch in Mabton, Washington, which has about 4,000 dairy cows.

US beef is still "extremely safe," said Dr. Daniel Engeljohn, a policy analysis official in the Food Safety and Inspection Service in the Agriculture Department, but the discovery of the disease "will spur the US to look at the preventive measures it's had in place for the last decade."

Critics of the industry called the current testing inadequate and said they had been warning for years that mad cow disease was in American cattle but undetected because too few animals were tested. They accused the Department of Agriculture of failing to be a vigilant guardian over the nation's dinner table and said it did not fulfill the common claim that its inspectors test all obviously sick cows.

How many "downers" -- cows too sick to walk -- are slaughtered each year is in dispute. The beef industry says the number is only about 60,000 among older animals, while animal rights advocates cite figures based on European herds that suggest the number is nearly 700,000. The Agriculture Department said its best guess was from a 1999 beef industry survey that estimated there were 195,000 downers on ranches, feedlots and slaughterhouses that year. In any case, only 20,526 animals were tested last year; through the 1990's, only a few hundred were tested annually.

Which downers might have mad cow disease is also in dispute.

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