USDA Criticized over Second Mad Cow Case

The Agriculture Department says it is testing animals from the Texas herd where it traced the nation's second case of mad cow disease. Many in the cattle industry, and in Congress, are critical of how USDA has handled the case.

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The Agriculture Department says it's making progress tracing the herd mates of a 12-year-old cow that had mad cow disease. Twenty-nine cows from the herd have tested negative for the brain-wasting disease; results of 38 others are pending. Months before the USDA had said that the cow's test was, quote, "inconclusive"; now some ranchers and members of Congress are questioning how the nation's second case of mad cow disease has been handled. NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN reporting:

To the buyers and sellers who come to the Mo-Kan Livestock Market in Passaic, Missouri, a new case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, is more than just a news story. It affects their livelihood. Andrew Wilson, who raises about 4,000 cattle in nearby Leeton, says the BSE case announced in June hit the markets and producers hard.

Mr. ANDREW WILSON (Cattle Rancher): It's been awful tough. That's the way I see it. You look at $82 fat cattle and spend a dollar thirty-something on a 400-pound heifer, it's going be awful hard to break even. Figure it up; that's about $100 a head.

(Soundbite of cattle mooing)

ALLEN: Outside at Mo-Kan, hundreds of cattle jostle in pens before they're brought into the sale barn where auctioneer Jim Hertzog works to get the best price possible.

Mr. JIM HERTZOG (Auctioneer): Pair of good bulls right here. (Unintelligible) bid. All right, guys, gather round now, it's auction time. ...(Unintelligible) bid one eighty-five ...(unintelligible), hit one eighty-five...

ALLEN: Hertzog says many of his buyers and sellers are unhappy with how USDA handled the recent BSE case. It's a conspiracy theory you hear from a lot of cattlemen, that retesting the Texas cow seven months after it came up inconclusive may just have been a way to bring down the high cost of beef.

Mr. WILSON: You know, they didn't need to test that cow again. You know, what's a gold test? You know, they test her and said she was negative and then they come back and said it was a weak positive. And Johanns made the statement that beef prices are too high.

ALLEN: Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns did make some speeches in early June complaining about high beef prices, but the decision to order the new round of tests was ordered not by him but by USDA's independent inspector general. Consumer groups and some lawmakers have their own concerns over USDA's handling of this case. They want to know why the full protocol of testing recommended by international BSE experts wasn't followed with the Texas cow back in November. Johanns says there were lots of problems in how his agency handled this BSE case, but so far, USDA has not ordered any investigation of its own. Agency officials say they'll wait for the inspector general's report due out later this summer. Some in Congress, though, aren't content to wait. Democrats want to hold hearings on the USDA's response, but so far Republican leaders have refused. Minnesota Democrat Mark Dayton is a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Senator MARK DAYTON (Democrat, Minnesota): This is a very serious question of their knowing about a positive test for six months, and even allowing for doing the retesting, it shouldn't have taken six months. And there are more questions now in need of answers than anything else from USDA.

ALLEN: USDA and beef industry officials prefer to focus on the positive. Even though the Texas cow was mistakenly termed inconclusive, they emphasize it was never a risk to public health because it was removed from the food chain and incinerated. Although there's plenty of grumbling from individual ranchers, the nation's largest ranchers group, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, has not joined calls for an outside investigation. The NCBA's Gary Weber says surveys show an overwhelming majority of consumers say they still have confidence in how the Agriculture Department has been responding to mad cow disease, and his group shares that view.

Mr. GARY WEBER (National Cattlemen's Beef Association): The debate that has gone on internally for seven months is not a sign of weakness. It's actually a sign of the strength of the system to have a dialogue about whether additional samples are run. But it wasn't a sense of urgency because the animal didn't enter the feed or food supply.

ALLEN: But discovery of a second BSE case raises a whole new set of questions for USDA and the beef industry. Up until now, the cattle industry has insisted that mad cow disease is a Canadian, not a US, problem because the single case found here was in an animal imported from Canada. The new case was in a cow that was born and raised in Texas. The new case may also play a role in government efforts to reopen the border to Canadian cattle imports as it tries to convince foreign customers, like Japan and South Korea, to resume buying US beef. Greg Allen, NPR News.

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