The Agriculture Department should significantly expand its testing of U.S. cattle for mad cow disease, after questions were raised about how the government discovered the nation’s first case, the House Government Reform Committee said Tuesday.
The committee urged the USDA to test all adult cattle too sick or injured to walk for mad cow disease, as recommended by an international review panel.
The review panel earlier this month reported a “high probability” for more mad cow cases in the United States and recommended a package of tough new safeguards to prevent further spread. The USDA is considering the new measures.
“We believe 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,” the committee said in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman.
The committee said the USDA should test the 200,000 so-called downer cattle for mad cow disease. The department expects to test 40,000 cattle this year, out of the 35 million slaughtered annually.
However, the committee expressed concerns about the effectiveness of USDA’s testing program, after questions were raised about how officials discovered the first U.S. mad cow case in December.
Bush administration officials have repeatedly said Washington state inspectors tested the infected cow because the animal could not walk when it arrived at Vern’s Moses Lake Meats, a local slaughter plant, in early December.
The department, which focuses its testing on downer cattle and those over 30 months of age, said this case proved its current surveillance program was working.
But the Washington-based Government Accountability Project said workers at the slaughter plant and other documents, which were provided to the committee, disagreed with USDA’s statements.
Three industry officials, two of which were from Vern’s Moses Lake Meats, said the infected cow could walk and was not deemed a downer animal by inspectors.
“If it is confirmed the BSE-infected cow was not a downer, public confidence in USDA may suffer,” the committee said. ”Confidence in the food supply requires that the public be able to rely on the statements of USDA officials.”
A USDA spokesman said animal inspection documents, copies of which were shown to Reuters, showed the infected cow could not walk.
The committee has asked the USDA to provide evidence supporting its statements by March 2.