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U.S. agriculture chief concedes testing program still needs work

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WASHINGTON - In the face of a critical audit from her own department's inspector general, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said Wednesday that the expanded testing program for mad cow disease is on track but conceded some adjustments might be needed.

"Not surprisingly, given the scope of our task, our efforts continue to evolve in order to assure the successful implementation of such an extensive undertaking," Veneman said during a joint hearing of the House Agriculture and Government Reform committees.

A draft of an audit prepared by the Agriculture Department Office of Inspector General concluded that the testing program has serious flaws that could undermine its credibility and lead to questionable estimates of how widespread the disease is among the nation's cattle and dairy herds.

The department plans to test 268,000 animals for mad cow, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), over the next 12 to 18 months.

Since the expanded program started June 1, more than 15,000 animals have been tested, and no new cases have been confirmed.

The nation's first-ever case of BSE was reported two days before Christmas in a Holstein at a dairy farm near Mabton, Wash. Veneman and others have said they would not be surprised if additional cases were found.

The inspector general's audit concluded that the department's sampling program was not random because participation by slaughterhouses, rendering plants and farms was voluntary.

The audit challenged the department assumption that only "high-risk" animals that were sick or showed signs of central nervous system disorders should be tested, even though some studies have shown that healthy looking animals also might have BSE.

The audit also said the department had previously failed to test, as required, all animals that showed signs of the disease before being slaughtered and had no formal plan to test animals that die on farms.

"This sampling plan has been announced as scientifically based and representative of the populations of U.S. cattle as a whole," testified Phyllis Fong, the department's inspector general. "However, we believe that several limitations inherent in the expanded sampling plan need to be clarified so that industry, the public and U.S. trading partners understand what the results of the testing actually imply."

Veneman took the criticism in stride.

"The inspector general has provided recommendations to enhance the program and raised a number of issues that continue to merit attention," Veneman said, pledging that her department would work to implement the recommendations.

Some lawmakers were not appeased by Veneman's comments and said the department was more focused on convincing the public that the nation's meat supply was safe than in actually ensuring it was safe.

"I am concerned that the desire to reassure the public is trumping the obligation to tell the truth," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, a leading critic of the department.

Other lawmakers were more understanding.

"We expect small hiccups, as this is a massive undertaking for USDA," said Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., chairman of the Government Reform Committee.

But even Davis had some concerns, including whether the infected Holstein in Washington state was a "downer" cow when it arrived at the slaughterhouse or rather was an ambulatory animal that was tested even though it appeared healthy.

Department officials have insisted the tests are only done on sickly animals because that's where the disease has most commonly been found. But if the disease was found in a seemingly healthy animal, the department's testing program might be focused on the wrong population of cattle.

Davis said it was his understanding that the department has routinely tested healthy looking animals for BSE.

In a separate audit report, the inspector general reported that additional eyewitnesses indicated the infected Holstein was ambulatory when it was trucked away from the Mabton dairy. But the audit quoted the eyewitnesses as saying that even though the Holstein was walking, it appeared sickly.

Department officials said at the time that the Holstein couldn't walk, which was why it was tested for BSE.

Fong said investigators "found no instances when USDA personnel knowingly conveyed false or misleading information or engaged in intentional misconduct."

Immediately after the infected cow was found, Veneman announced that downer, or non-ambulatory, cows would be banned from the food supply.

Veneman said Wednesday that no final decision has been made on the downer ban. Some in the cattle industry said the ban goes too far and that many downer animals aren't sick but were injured when they were loaded onto trucks for the ride to the slaughterhouse.

"The comments on the interim final rule are still being evaluated," Veneman said.

The first case of mad cow disease was discovered in Britain in the late 1980s. More than 180,000 cases have been confirmed in roughly two dozen countries. Humans can get a form of the disease, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, from eating infected meat. The human form of the disease is always fatal, and more than 150 people have died, most of them in Britain.

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