Exactly one year ago, the United States found its first case of mad cow disease.
A year later, despite fears of economic fallout, beef prices are high, the government has vastly expanded its testing program and consumers appear unfazed by an event the beef industry thought could be devastating.
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association projects 2004 will ring up its best sales year ever.
Yet many questions remain unanswered about the lone infected cow found last December in a Washington state packing plant, and new criticism has surfaced over the government's efforts to assure consumers about the safety of their meat.
Beginning last December, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and Health, Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson and other officials announced new rules intended to protect the nation's food supply from bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease.
Some went into effect quickly. Meat from "downer" animals -- those that cannot walk on their own at the slaughterhouse -- was banned from entering the food supply. Others, including promises by the Food and Drug Administration to close loopholes in animal feed regulations, have been sidelined.
The downer ban was implemented after the USDA concluded that the diseased cow was unable to walk when it was slaughtered last December. The USDA said those animals were among the most likely to be infected.
That assertion has since fallen into question after the manager of the Moses Lake, Wash., plant where the cow was killed and an employee who claimed to have killed the cow both said the cow could walk.
Other questions linger. Why was the animal's temperature -- standard practice for downed cows -- never taken?
In May, MSNBC.com filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act for records about the cow -- including its veterinary history and results of medical tests performed at the slaughterhouse. The USDA denied the request in September, citing an "ongoing investigation."
Agency officials said questions involving the handling of the cow were addressed by USDA Inspector General Phyllis Fong during congressional testimony in July.
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Fong launched an investigation into whether the records involving the sick cow had been altered, but found no wrongdoing. An official with Fong's office told MSNBC.com the investigation appeared to be complete. Whether there are other ongoing investigations is not clear.
Banned items getting through?
Questions linger about other safeguards. The most important of the January changes, government and beef industry officials maintain, was a ban on "specified risk materials" -- cow parts most likely to transmit infectious prions, the malformed proteins that cause mad cow disease.
Because the disease is usually found in older cattle and concentrates in certain areas of the body, banned materials included brains, spinal cords and other neural tissue from animals older than 30 months, along with the tonsils and small intestines of all cattle.
The government and industry rely on this ban as a safety linchpin: If potentially infectious items are removed from the food supply, they insist, all meat should be safe. A panel of international experts convened by Veneman last February stressed removal of this risk material. It suggested more stringent rules -- removal of these parts from any animal over 12 months -- but said the regulations were "a reasonable temporary compromise."
Yet earlier this month, a union representing federal meat inspectors told the USDA that inspectors reported finding older animals on slaughter lines that hadn't been marked for special processing.
USDA rules require federal veterinarians and inspection supervisors to ensure that animals' ages are determined properly. Some plants apparently assign workers to determine age, while federal inspectors on the processing line --online inspectors -- may only check for risk materials clearly visible on a carcass.
"Offline" inspectors supervise the process by verifying plant inspection efforts, but spend a fraction of their time personally checking animal ages. When online inspectors double-checked animal carcasses, the union said , they found older animals had made it through the line without being flagged. Supervisors were dismissive, the union said.
"This agency has the attitude that they don't have to answer to anyone," said Stan Painter, chairman of National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals.
The USDA maintains that online inspectors are not supposed to check ages themselves. USDA spokesman Steven Cohen said age verifications are "being done correctly," and noted that plants follow a written plan for determining ages.
The union did not disclose which workers or plants were involved, citing fears of retaliation. But one inspector's statement provided to MSNBC.com on condition of anonymity described several shortfalls in the system.
The USDA recommends plants use paper records to determine age. At the plant described by the inspector, heads and carcasses of older animals were marked early in the processing line based on a check of the cows' teeth. Workers farther down the line had no way to know if a carcass was mismarked.
The worker added that supervisors, unless they personally witness a violation, were instructed to ignore online inspectors' claims.
"I am concerned that under current policies federal inspectors cannot prevent these potentially dangerous products from carrying the USDA 'inspected and passed' seal," the inspector said.
These age verifications could be improved using a national system to track cattle, but progress on one has stalled. Veneman said last December she would expedite the tracking plan, a voluntary system, but the USDA continues to tangle with beef producers over costs and confidentiality concerns.
Feed loopholes linger
The biggest gap in safeguards, however, may be in the FDA's rules governing animal feed.
In January, FDA officials announced sweeping changes to its rules governing animal feed. Since 1997, the United States had mirrored other countries in banning protein from any mammals in feed for cattle and some other animals.
Mad cow disease is thought to be caused when cattle eat infectious prions from other cattle. Feed restrictions have been used to reduce its spread, though U.S. regulations lagged those of some other countries. The January plans would have closed many gaps in the rules.
"We must never be satisfied with the status quo where the health and safety of our animals and our population is at stake," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said at the time. Yet the FDA took no action for six months.
In July, the agency enacted a few proposed rules. It banned "specified risk materials" and material from downers in food products, dietary supplements or cosmetics.
But it did not address some of the most worrisome loopholes, including the use of mammalian blood or poultry litter in cattle feed. Instead it essentially restarted the regulatory process, noting that it needed to weigh environmental and economic impacts.
Last week, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said the agency "failed to act on its promise to close loopholes in the mad cow feed ban."
"After nearly a full year of empty promises, the time has come for the FDA to provide more than lip service," she said.
The FDA said it has not yet responded to Cantwell. It said its July actions came after Veneman's expert panel recommended stronger measures.
Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Consumer Federation of America's Food Policy Institute, believes agencies won't enact additional safeguards unless new cases of mad cow are discovered. "They've constructed, on paper, a protective system and they're going to just keep arguing that it's all they need, unless and until there's more of this found," Foreman said.
Testing plans criticized
No new cases have been found.
An expanded testing program launched in June has checked nearly 153,000 cows as of last week, but hasn't confirmed any new cases. Two initially positive results in July and November unsettled cattle markets but turned out negative.
The more time passes without a new case, the more consumer confidence in the meat supply grows.
In congressional testimony last July, Inspector General Fong criticized the department for loopholes in testing. Though its plan focuses on high-risk cattle, mostly sick or dying animals, Fong noted that participation is voluntary, so some high-risk cattle pass through.
She criticized testing plans that included 20,000 healthy but older cattle, saying it "may give the incorrect impression that these few tests will suggest a level of assurance higher than warranted about the 45 million adult cattle in the United States."
The USDA was similarly criticized earlier this year when it rejected requests by private beef companies to test all their cattle. Though Japan had banned U.S. beef, one Kansas meat packer, Creekstone Farms Premium Beef, struck a deal to sell privately tested meat. The agency rejected this plan , saying that only the government could test for the disease.
Japan -- which currently tests all its cattle -- agreed in October to resume some beef imports. But more than 40 countries still ban U.S. beef.
In the domestic market, however, sales are strong, with both wholesale and retail prices up. Wholesale prices are at about 85 cents a pound, up from 67 cents two years ago.
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