Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman was treated to alternating rounds of accolades and barbs at a Senate hearing examining mad cow disease and its relationship to food safety, livestock marketing and international trade.
The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry's Jan. 27 hearing focused on the December discovery of a case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, in a Washington dairy cow, and the related events that have unfolded since.
While some senators, like Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, told Veneman that the number of senators “extolling her virtues” could be a record, others were more critical.
Even Roberts himself had some difficult questions for Veneman to answer. Specifically, he wanted to know why USDA has consistently referred to BSE as a North American problem. “Has calling it a North American problem posed a problem for trade, in the same way it has posed a problem in the minds of cattle producers?”
“The fact of the matter is that U.S. producers do have a lot of inter-relationships of trading cattle with our North American neighbors,” Veneman answered. “I think it is important we understand this on a global basis, also.”
Senator Minority leader Tom Daschle made his opinions on the issue clear, saying there is “no reason any borders should be closed to U.S. beef.” He also pushed for the implementation of country-of-origin labeling, and said the problems associated with BSE “can't be solved under the system of bureaucratic boxes we've created to addresses this issue, but this hearing is a step in the right direction.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., questioned whether or not poor record keeping has limited USDA's ability to find the remaining 50 plus cows connected to the BSE positive cow found in Washington. “That's another reason we need a national animal identification system,” he says. “All of us, from both sides of the aisle, want this to work.”
Providing a timeline
Veneman says USDA received word Dec. 23 that a tissue sample taken as part of its routine surveillance system tested positive for BSE. “We had in place a BSE response plan, and upon hearing of the BSE finding, we immediately began to implement the plan and began our investigation to find the origin of the cow,” she says.
Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., says the cattlemen in his state knew of the cow's link to Canada on Dec. 24, but says USDA did not make that announcement until several days later.
In response, Veneman said, “When the preliminary results came back Dec. 23, we had the tag number of the cow, but not the actual ear-tag. The tag was sent with the bruscellosis sample to be tested, where the tag was destroyed. Because the bruscellosis sample was negative, it is standard procedure to destroy the ear tag.”
“On Dec. 24, USDA went to the farm and saw the number of the tag was similar to other tags on the farm with Canadian information. At that point, we tried to trace the ear tag number to Canada. We had confirmation on that the 27th of December, and we announced our findings that day,” she said. “I understand what you're saying about people thinking they knew, but there was no confirmation.”
Conrad says the cattlemen in his state believe the gap in reporting by USDA resulted in a worst case scenario for U.S. cattlemen, and the livestock market. “We need to establish when in fact it was known that the cow in question had a Canadian ear tag,” he says. “What I'm hearing at home is that some people had inside information, and were able to make money off the market with that information.”
During his testimony, Sen. Richard Durbin, said he had written a letter to Veneman two weeks earlier expressing his concerns about the chronology of events that led to the diagnosis of BSE in a Holstein cow in Washington State. According to Durbin, he's still waiting for her response.
“The USDA has a long-standing policy prohibiting the processing of cattle with neurological signs for any use. The Washington cow was sampled for BSE testing because she was, according to the USDA, showing signs of calving paralysis. However, calving paralysis is by definition a neurological disease,” he says. “The inspectors at the Washington plant were correct in singling out this animal for BSE sampling, but why was the carcass not held until the results were known? If the inspectors recognized that the animal was uncoordinated or unable to rise on her own, why was she allowed into the human food chain at all? “
Durbin adds, “I also wonder why it took so long to obtain the presumptive positive results from the BSE tests. I understand that immunohistochemistry analysis usually takes only five to seven days. Because the animal was not considered a priority, the results took 13 days. As a result of the delay, the animal was processed, according to Dr. Steven Solomon from FDA, into 2.8 millions pounds of consumer products, all of which were potentially contaminated with BSE.”
A question of testing
During Tuesday's Senate hearing, Leahy questioned why the United States tests fewer animals than other countries, especially considering that Japan tests every animal for BSE.
According to Veneman, the United States is relying on guidelines established by international experts, and says Japanese testing is done more to reassure their consumers, than for scientific reasons.
Veneman says, “We are testing in accordance with internationally recognized standards. We will increase our testing this year, and even before that we were testing in excess of OIE guidelines. OIE does not recommend the testing of every animal.”
Durbin believes that at the current level of testing, the United States has no real estimate of the true prevalence rate of BSE in this country.
“The USDA should adopt the use of rapid BSE tests and implement a ‘test and hold’ protocol for dealing with not only suspect animals such as the one in Washington, but also all cattle and bison presented for processing that are over 30 months of age. Using the rapid BSE tests on this additional group of older animals would provide critical surveillance data that then could be used to determine a true prevalence rate of BSE in the United States and make clear whether we truly have a BSE problem in our country,” he says. “If a rapid test had been used on the cow in Washington State, the results would have been known within a few hours instead of days, avoiding the need for a costly recall of contaminated food and consumer products.”
Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., still thinks the response system used by USDA has worked. “The at-risk animals were not put in the food system, and the meat of the BSE positive cow was recalled,” he says.
The export market
Veneman says her office has made regaining the beef export market a priority. Poland is the first country to reinstate imports of U.S. beef since the BSE case in Washington was announced in December. She also says recent visits by U.S. trade officials have been well received.
“We have been very pro-active on the trade front. In fact, we have a team coming back today from Asia. We have further enhanced our protection systems, and we are working diligently to restore our export markets,” Veneman says. “We are hopeful we can resume trade as quickly as possible.”
Veneman reminded the Senate committee that when the United States closed its borders with Canada in May, it took until August for the United States to finish its BSE investigation and re-open its markets to some Canadian imports. Other countries actions are “mirroring” the United States' reaction to the Canadian BSE case, she says.
Adds Daschle, “We have two million pounds of beef that was supposed to be exported, and is still on the high seas. I would like to know how USDA will deal with that.”