WASHINGTON, DC, February 23, 2004 (ENS): The U.S. Department
of Agriculture (USDA) is expanding its animal testing
program as recommended by an international panel of
experts convened by the department after a cow in Washington
State tested positive in December for bovine spongiform
encephalopathy (BSE), says Agriculture Secretary Ann
Briefing reporters Thursday after a speech at USDA's
Agricultural Outlook Forum near Washington, Veneman
said she expects soon to announce the "comprehensive
nature" of the enhanced testing program. It is
likely that the USDA will increase the number and expand
characteristics of the animals tested for BSE, known
as mad cow disease.
Veneman said the expanded testing program likely would
include the testing of older healthy cows for BSE, as
well as the younger, sick or injured animals that have
been the focus of the department's testing program.
Older cows are those over 30 months of age.
In addition, the department likely will test more than
40,000 cows for BSE in 2004, as recommended by the review
panel, Veneman said. The department initially said it
would test 40,000 cows in 2004, or twice the amount
of animals tested in 2003, and 40,000 cows was the number
mentioned in the 2005 budget request sent to Congress
earlier this month.
Veneman said representatives of Japan and Mexico are
currently in Washington to learn more about the United
States' ongoing efforts to upgrade its animal testing
and health protection programs.
Those efforts include the accelerated development of
a verifiable, permanent national animal identification
system and helping other countries understand the importance
of basing international trade rules on sound science,
she said. Veneman announced December 30 that the USDA
would begin immediate implementation of a national animal
identification plan, which would aid efforts to track
animals and their origins.
Japan and Mexico, which currently ban U.S. beef imports,
are the two largest U.S. beef export markets.
The United States hopes its open approach to informing
the public about its efforts to strengthen its animal
testing and surveillance programs will provide an example
to other countries dealing with food safety and consumer
confidence issues, said J.B. Penn, under secretary of
agriculture for foreign affairs. Addressing conference
attendees, Penn said U.S. officials continue to work
to inform foreign officials and public about the safety
of North American beef.
Penn said that Canada and the Philippines remain open
for U.S. beef and said he expects other markets to reopen
The USDA's labeling of the BSE infected cow as a "downer"
has been questioned by the two highest ranking members
of the House of Representatives Committee on Government
Reform. In a joint letter to Veneman on February 17,
committee Chairman Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican,
and Congressman Henry Waxman, a California Democrat,
presented evidence from three people who handled, transported
and slaughtered the BSE cow that it was ambulatory at
the time of death.
"If the information we have received is true,"
the congressmen wrote, "a key premise of the USDA
BSE testing program is subverted. It is self-evident
that if the only BSE-infected cow in the United States
was able to walk and had no symptoms of nervous system
disease, USDA should not assume that all infected cattle
will be either downer cows or cows that exhibt symptoms
of nervous system disease."
The two congressmen said the evidence means that the
USDA should follow the international panel's recommendations
and test not just 40,000 cows, but "all downer
cows over 30 months" and conduct "a random
sampling of among healthy cattle."
The congressmen said the USDA should "either follow
the recommendations of these independent experts and
expand mad cow testing substantially or provide a compelling
reason for not doing so."
While Waxman said Sunday that the committee has not
received a reply to its letter from the Agriculture
Secretary, her announcement of an expanded testing program
appears to address some of their concerns.