Outrage over BSE retest lingers

Cattle Market & Farm Reports, Editorials
Jun 27, 2005
by WLJ

Final results likely early this week.
Testing disclosure scrutinized.
Cattle industry and U.S. agriculture officials last week were both eagerly awaiting final results of confirmatory BSE testing being conducted by a world-renowned lab in Weybridge, England. However, as of press time last Thursday, those results were not known, and USDA officials were indicating that results would be known probably the first half of this week (starting June 27).
In the meantime, USDA was still facing intense criticism due to the decision to retest and the fact that they breached normal BSE surveillance protocol by announcing A preliminary@ test results and not waiting for final confirmatory tests to be completed.
During a June 17 teleconference, Jim McAdams, president of the National Cattlemen= s Beef Association (NCBA) said that his group had a face-to-face meeting early that morning with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns concerning how the current BSE situation has been handled.
A We took this opportunity to let Secretary Johanns knowCin no uncertain termsCthat these actions have created great anxiety within our industry, and have resulted in significant losses for producers forced to market during these uncertain conditions,@ McAdams said.
A We believe that the market uncertainty stemming from last week's report has already resulted in a serious drop in value for the U.S. cattle inventory. No matter how quickly or fully the market rebounds, many producers have suffered very real losses that will never be recovered. This situation will continue to bring volatility and economic harm to our industry as long as uncertainty hangs over the marketplace.@
According to Johanns, his agency had no choice but to order the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to conduct retests on three A preliminary inconclusive@ samples that were collected last year. USDA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) asked for the retest using the Western blot test, and Johanns said that is a branch of the agency that he has no say over or against.
Samples from three cows showed A preliminary positive@ results using BioRad= s rapid BSE testing kit, however, confirmatory testing at the National Veterinary Services Laboratory (NVSL), Ames, IA, showed there to be no infection in those animals. According to OIG, there was some reason to believe that the confirmatory testing process was flawed or conducted incorrectly and that a retest using the Western blot test was in order.
That retest came back positive in one of the three retested samples. That sample was then sent over to the Weybridge lab for additional testing. USDA officials indicated that the English laboratory received the sample last Monday, June 20, about a week later than originally projected.
The delay was the result of USDA needing to make sure they kept enough of the suspect animal= s brain sample so they could continue to do their own batteries of testing as well.
There was some industry and scientific concern with OIG= s decision to use the Western blot test, because it is a broader test that can determine the presence of other prion diseases besides BSE.
AThe positive result from the Western blot could have been something else besides BSE, while the IHC test, which USDA uses as its confirmatory test, exclusively looks for BSE,@ said Gary Weber, executive director for regulatory affairs with NCBA. AThe IHC is the > gold standard= BSE test and recognized internationally.@
According to NCBA and other industry organizations, USDA needs to stick to original protocol regarding announcements of BSE tests and their results.
A few months after implementing their stepped-up BSE surveillance program on June 1, 2004, USDA announced that they would not publicly report test results unless they were positive following confirmatory testing.
In this case, producer groups said USDA violated that protocol by announcing the positive Western blot test results before the English laboratory had a chance to conduct it= s testing to confirm or deny the presence of the disease.
AOnce again, USDA= s actions surrounding this same animal have unnecessarily caused extreme volatility in the marketplace, and conditions can only be described as miserable,@ said Leo McDonnell, president of R-CALF United Stockgrowers of America. AMarkets are reeling as a result of USDA= s indecisiveness, which is causing irreparable harm to our industry, and someone needs to take the reins and steer us back on a proper course.@
There was also concern that USDA is withholding information on the specifics of the animal in question and that rumor and speculation is causing even more harm to the industry, specifically cattle markets.
It has been indicated by some USDA reports that the cow is between 10-12 years old, meaning it was born prior to a 1997 ban on ruminant meat-and-bone-meal in ruminant feed. In addition, reports have indicated the cow was from the Southwest U.S., more than likely Texas.
APHIS spokespeople have denied those reports, and that specific information on the animal will only be released if the England lab comes back with a positive BSE result. Jim Rogers, spokesman for APHIS, did say that preliminary reports about the suspect animal= s remains not entering the human or animal food chain were correct and that any chance of the disease spreading beyond this animal was nonexistent. C
Steven D. Vetter, WLJ Editor