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USDA urged to employ mad cow rapid test

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WASHINGTON, Jul 09, 2003 (United Press International via COMTEX) -- Whether the U.S. beef supply is safe from mad cow disease cannot be determined because the U.S. government screens too few cattle to be sure, critics tell United Press International, though the government contends U.S. beef is free of the disease.

A recent report of a case of mad cow disease in Canada has raised concerns about the possibility of the disease existing in neighboring U.S. herds. Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture maintains American cattle are free of the disease, critics say there is no way to know for certain until the agency implements so-called rapid tests.

The critics, including a former rancher and a former USDA veterinarian, said the tests, which yield results in a matter of hours and have helped detect mad cow disease in herds in several European countries, would enable the agency to screen millions of animals and provide assurances to the American public that its beef supply is safe.

The concern is mad cow can infect humans and cause a form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a deadly, brain-wasting condition that struck more than 100 people in the United Kingdom beginning in the late 1990s after they had consumed beef from infected cattle.

So far, the USDA has been reluctant to use the rapid test, claiming its current method -- called the immunohistochemistry test, which can take eight days to produce results -- is adequate to conduct the levels of surveillance officials said are sufficient. Last year, the USDA screened 20,000 cattle out of the more than 30 million slaughtered.

Critics charge the USDA's system, because it tests so few animals, makes it unlikely mad cow would ever be detected.

Concerns about the possible financial impact on the U.S. beef industry if mad cow is discovered is driving the USDA's reluctance to implement the rapid test, said Howard Lyman, a former rancher turned vegetarian who suspects mad cow already is present in U.S. herds.

"I would bet everything I hold sacred if we went out and tested 5 million mature and downer cattle (in the United States) we would find animals infected with (mad cow disease)," he told UPI.

Both a former USDA veterinarian and a current USDA veterinarian echoed Lyman's comments.

"There'd definitely be some positives coming out somewhere along the line if they used the rapid test," Lester Friedlander told UPI. He is a former USDA veterinarian who has been sharply critical of the agency's efforts to ensure the safety of meat.

"The USDA never applied (the rapid test) here because they're afraid of the results," he said.

The current USDA veterinarian, who requested anonymity because of fear of possible repercussions from the agency, told UPI: "If you do have one (mad cow disease) case in this country, the impact is so great that the government decided not to have it a long time ago." The veterinarian added, "That's my personal opinion -- if they see (a case) they wouldn't make it known."

The USDA denies it is skewing the testing to protect the industry, and maintains American beef is safe and free of mad cow disease. "We still believe strongly the United States is (mad cow) free and we've never had a case of (mad cow) in this country," agency spokesman Ed Curlett told UPI.

The USDA defends its use of the slow test, calling it the "gold standard" and the most accurate. "We can use the best test out there and still do a high level of surveillance in the U.S.," Curlett said, noting the agency's current level of testing is sufficient to detect mad cow disease even if it was occurring in only one cow per million.

Lyman and Friedlander pointed out, however, the rapid tests helped uncover cases of mad cow in Germany, Austria and other countries thought to be free of the disease because no cases were detected using immunohistochemistry.

The USDA is "putting the financial success of factory farmers and multinational slaughter facilities far ahead of the concern over consumers," Lyman said. The Canadian beef export business "dried up overnight" after the report of their first case on May 20 in the province of Alberta, he noted. "If there was one confirmed case in the U.S., you couldn't ship a beef cattle out of this country if you had a presidential seal on it."

By some estimates, the Canadian beef industry is losing as much as $11 million per day. A case of mad cow in the United States likely would cost the nation's beef industry much more. Beef companies contribute $65 billion per year to the U.S. economy -- nearly triple the amount of their Canadian counterparts.

One reason for USDA's reluctance: Some of the available rapid tests can yield false positives, indicating an animal is infected when it is not. However, at least one rapid test claims to be 100 percent accurate. Manufactured by Prionics, a Swiss company, the test yielded no false results in a 1999 evaluation conducted by the European Commission and it has been used reliably in Swiss cattle for years.

David Westaway, an associate professor of molecular biology at the University of Toronto who studied mad-cow-like diseases, said the rapid tests are based on sound scientific principles and "they're very reliable. They're sensitive enough to pick up cows that have (mad cow) that have not gotten sick yet," he told UPI.

In addition, the rapid tests are "easier to do on large numbers and easier to interpret," Westaway said. They resemble pregnancy tests, turning a different color if they detect mad cow and leaving little room for human error. In contrast, the slow tests used by the USDA can take "years of training to interpret the outcome."

USDA's critics also pointed out the United States is not even meeting the bare minimum of testing recommended by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, which suggests every "downer" cow should be screened for the disease as well as healthy animals at random. Downer cattle are those unable to stand, which could indicate neurological disorders.

The United States had approximately 200,000 downer cattle last year but tested only 20,000 or 10 percent. In previous years, the USDA tested only a few thousand cattle for the disease and altogether has tested only 48,000 since it began screening for mad cow in 1990. Some European countries tested hundreds of thousands of cattle before they detected the disease in their herds.

The American Meat Institute, a trade group representing the beef industry, claims testing of all U.S. cattle is unnecessary and would be prohibitively expensive. The large number of cattle slaughtered in the United States each year compared to the number in European countries and the low likelihood that mad cow is present domestically would make testing "a complete waste of time and money," AMI spokesman Dan Murphy said.

"We're confident ... our cattle are free of (mad cow disease), our beef supply is safe and there is absolutely no public health concern as a result of what happened up in Canada," he told UPI.

Murphy acknowledged there might be a need to increase testing, but only to appease the safety concerns of domestic consumers and foreign countries that buy American beef and not due to "a gaping hole in our current surveillance."

Yet the Canadian case underscores the possibility the disease could be present in U.S. herds because for many years the two countries have exchanged cattle regularly across a largely open border. More than 1.5 million live Canadian cattle, as well as 83 percent of the 1.2 million metric tons of beef exported by Canada, were imported into the United States last year.

One factor that worries USDA critics is Canada used the same slow test the United States still employs. However, the authorities there quickly shifted to the rapid test to screen more than 2,000 cattle as they attempted to determine if there were additional infections.

The ramifications of the Canadian case might force changes in the USDA's system for keeping mad cow out of the food supply. The agency has come under increasing pressure from foreign countries that purchase American beef, such as Japan -- the largest importer of American beef -- which wants the USDA to provide stronger proof of the safety of its cattle. So, late in June, USDA officials said they probably would impose new safeguards on the cattle industry to protect against mad cow -- although they would not elaborate on what those measures might include.

Asked if the USDA was considering using the rapid test, agency spokesman Curlett said: "Right now we're still sticking with the gold standard, the immunohistochemistry test. I'm not aware of any plans for that to change in the immediate future. However, all options are on the table."

A USDA veterinarian who requested anonymity offered a different perspective. The veterinarian acknowledged hearing indications the agency may put the rapid test in place, saying, "I think that's being considered. We're hearing a great deal about it."

Copyright 2003 by United Press International.

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