The U.S. official responsible for the nation's mad cow testing program is resigning, the Agriculture Department confirmed Tuesday.
Bobby Acord, administrator of the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), is stepping down for personal reasons, spokeswoman Courtney Billet told MSNBC.
"He has decided to retire," Billet said. "He has been taking care of his mom and he also has been responsible for an elderly aunt in West Virginia."
Acord has been a vocal critic of expanded testing for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a fatal brain disease that afflicts cattle but can be transmitted into humans. The first U.S. case of mad cow disease, as BSE is commonly known, was discovered in December in a Washington state dairy cow.
"There is no scientific evidence to support anything beyond what we're doing in this country, quite frankly," Acord said during a news briefing last May, just after the first Canadian case of BSE was found in an Alberta cow. The infected U.S. cow was imported from an Alberta ranch in 2001.
At the time Acord made the statement, plans called for testing of 20,000 cattle across the United States. Those tests uncovered the nation's first case, and testing plans have since been expanded to a projected 200,000 or more of the about 35 million cows slaughtered annually in the United States. The USDA's new testing plan, announced last week, was based largely on recommendations of an outside panel of international experts convened in January by Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman.
After the Canadian case was discovered, USDA officials barred Canadian cows and beef from crossing the border, but Acord and other officials told USDA employees not to track down cows that had previously come into the United States from its northern border.
Also last May, Acord dismissed the possibility of adopting an approach to BSE in North America similar to that used in Europe, where many countries test half their herd for the disease. "What the Europeans are doing, I don't think, necessarily applies here," he said. "I think what we have to do is stick with the system that has worked for us."
In late February, a senior USDA scientist complained to The New York Times that the agency's scientific decisions about animal safety were often eclipsed by economic concerns, notably in regard to efforts to lift a U.S. ban on Canadian beef imposed after the Canadian mad cow case was discovered.
Then in early March, several House members were frustrated by Acord's responses to their questions during panel testimony about testing for mad cow disease.
"It's really like pulling teeth or worse trying to get the right kind of information out of these people," Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., told MSNBC on Tuesday. Of Acord's retirement, Hinchey said, "It's not shocking, but you wonder why he would select this particular moment."
Hinchey said he questioned whether testing conducted prior to the Dec. 23 discovery of the first U.S. case had been as comprehensive as USDA officials had described it.
Acord's resignation came Tuesday morning, Billet said, and is effective immediately. An acting chief for APHIS has not yet been named. She said the continuous workload at the service -- handling not just the nation's long-feared mad cow outbreak but also surveillance for bird flu and other animal diseases -- may have taken a toll, though it was not a deciding factor.
"I would hesistate to characterize it that those things wore him down," Billet said. "I think it just all came together."
Among other things, APHIS runs the National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa, where national testing for mad cow and other animal diseases is coordinated. Its scientists and investigators are responsible for tracking the spread of animal diseases throughout the country, and preventing foreign diseases from crossing U.S. borders.
Acord, who was named acting administrator two days before 9/11 and confirmed in November of 2001, controlled some 7,000 employees and an annual budget of $800 million. He previously was associate administrator of APHIS and began working for the USDA in 1966, as a commodity grader for the Agricultural Marketing Service.