WASHINGTON — Despite the confirmation of a third case of mad cow disease, the government intends to scale back testing for the brain-wasting disorder blamed for the deaths of more than 150 people in Europe.
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The Agriculture Department boosted its surveillance after finding the first case of mad cow disease in the United States in 2003. About 1,000 tests are run daily, up from about 55 daily in 2003.
The testing program detected an infected cow in Alabama last week, and further analysis confirmed Monday that the animal had mad cow disease.
Still, a reduction in testing has been in the works for months. The department's chief veterinarian, John Clifford, mentioned it when he announced the new case of mad cow disease.
"As we approach the conclusion of our enhanced surveillance program, let me offer a few thoughts," Clifford said, explaining that the U.S. will follow international standards for testing.
Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns pointed out testing is not a food safety measure. Rather, it's a way to find out the prevalence of the disease.
"Keep in mind the testing was for surveillance," Johanns told reporters Monday in Warsaw, Poland, where he was attending trade talks. "It was to get an idea of the condition of the herd."
Higher testing levels were intended to be temporary when they were announced two years ago.
Yet consumer groups argue more animals should be tested, not fewer. Officials haven't finalized new levels, but the department's budget proposal calls for 40,000 tests annually, or about 110 daily.
"This would be a tenth of a percent of all animals slaughtered," Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, said Tuesday. "This starts to be so small that in our opinion, it approaches a policy of don't look, don't find."
Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin said the confidence of American consumers and foreign customers is at risk.
"USDA ought to continue a sound surveillance testing program to demonstrate that U.S. beef is indeed safe and that anti-BSE safeguards are, in fact, working," said Harkin, senior Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee.
Consumer groups want every animal to be tested, said Gary Weber, head of regulatory affairs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association in Denver.
"It's not cost-effective; it's not necessary," Weber said. "The consumers we've done focus groups with are comfortable that this is a very rare disease and we've got safeguards in place."
He mentioned government protections to keep the disease from the food chain for people or animals.
"All those things add up to safety," he said.
The department mostly tests older cows with symptoms of the disease. Infected cows can show signs of nervous system disorder, such as aggression, lack of coordination, inability to walk or abnormal posture. In the latest case, the cow couldn't walk. It was a "downer," another sign of the disease. Dead cows are also suspect.
Tests are done on brain tissue from cows, so animals must be killed before they can be tested. There is no test for the disease in a live animal.
Since June 2004, the department has tested 652,697 cows for the disease. The nation has about 95 million cattle.
The medical name for mad cow disease is bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE. In humans, eating meat contaminated with BSE is linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, a rare and deadly nerve disease.
An outbreak in the United Kingdom killed more than 180,000 cows and was blamed for more than 150 human deaths. It began in 1986 and spread throughout Europe, peaking in 1993.
The first American case appeared 10 years later in Washington state in a Canadian-born cow. The disease was found again last June in a Texas cow.
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