updated 6/14/2005 11:08:15 AM ET 2005-06-14T15:08:15

Senior congressional Democrats on food and farm issues asked Monday why the Agriculture Department suddenly ordered new tests on tissue from a cow declared free of mad cow disease seven months ago.

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Now, a brain sample from the cow is being sent to England for further study because a third round of tests came back positive late Friday. The Agriculture Department’s inspector general suddenly ordered those tests last week.

The department has not explained why the new tests were ordered. The inspector general’s office, an independent arm of the agency, would not comment Monday, saying a brief statement would be issued Tuesday.

“That’s absurd,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., the House Appropriations Committee’s senior Democrat on farm issues. “What we’re doing by delaying this information is that you put the public health at risk, and you put the industry at risk. Who’s going to feel comfortable with our products?”

DeLauro and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, the Senate Agriculture Committee’s top Democrat, said they will ask the department to explain why new tests were ordered and why it took months to do so.

A consumer group that had requested the new round of testing applauded the decision but called the delay unfortunate.

“We just hope they will proceed extremely rapidly to track down the herd mates and not prolong this assessment any longer than it needs to be,” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union.

“There may well be cows that ate the same feed this one did that have already been slaughtered and eaten by people,” she said. “It’s a crucial seven months that we’ve lost, but better that they’ve caught it now than not to have caught it at all.”

Cow born before safeguards
Agriculture Department investigators are tracking the movements of the cow and other animals from its herd, said Dr. John Clifford, chief veterinary officer of the department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. The animal was incinerated last year after the first round of “rapid” tests indicated the presence of the disease, Clifford said.

Tissue from the cow’s brain has been kept frozen at the National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa. Scientists there will decide this week which portions to send to an internationally recognized laboratory in Weybridge, England and which portions to keep in Ames for further testing, Clifford said.

Also Monday:

  • The cow in question was born before the government created safeguards against the spread of infection, Clifford said. The ban against feeding cattle remains to cattle was issued in August 1997. The only known way the disease spreads is through feeding infected cattle remains to other cattle.
  • Canadian Ambassador Frank McKenna said Canada will not close its border to imports of U.S. beef. In an interview with The Associated Press, McKenna said U.S. beef packing workers are being laid off while Canadian packing jobs grow because the U.S. border remains closed to shipments from Canada, which discovered its first case of mad cow disease in 2003.
  • Taiwan indicated it will ban U.S. beef, again, if new tests confirm the suspected U.S. case of mad cow disease.
  • Japan, formerly the largest customer of U.S. beef, indicated a positive test result would not deter officials from resuming imports of U.S. beef. Japan agreed to reopen its market last fall but has not actually lifted its ban.

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