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From: TSS ()
Subject: USDA harasses mad cow whistleblowers
Date: February 25, 2005 at 10:58 am PST

Published Friday, February 25, 2005

USDA harasses mad cow whistleblowers

By Louis Clark

The discovery of Mad Cow disease in the United States back in December 2003 has rocked the beef industry. Consumer confidence in beef products has plummeted.

Japan, this country's largest customer, has closed its borders to our beef products.

Most cattlemen, meat processors and related investors have begun to see record profits drop sharply.

Then came the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) -- the world's largest promoter of agricultural enterprises -- to the rescue. The USDA's first effort was to convince a wary public, industry and world that its Mad Cow surveillance system had successfully discovered the ill animal through routine operations.

At first this massive and misleading public relations gambit worked. After all, according to the "facts" presented to the public, the sick cow was a "downer cow," (one that arrived at the slaughter facility unable to stand) and was therefore tested for mad cow disease. Of course, it was "officially" considered unfortunate that unwary consumers had already consumed the cow in question. It was also lamented that the other slaughtered cows from the possibly infected herd had largely disappeared because of USDA's inability to trace contaminated or questionable products. Nevertheless, the "solution" to the problem was relatively easy and obvious; that is, modestly increase testing, ban the consumption of downer cows, stop the importation of Canadian cows or beef products since the mad cow had originated in Canada, and forbid the use of any cattle feed laced with animal products.

Thanks to whistleblowers and other truth-tellers, the purported facts began to unravel, exposing the proposed reforms as woefully inadequate. The tested cow was not a downer; except for a physical injury, the cow in question did not show signs of Mad Cow disease. Furthermore, it was chosen for testing randomly, not because of any effective surveillance system for Mad Cow. Since the bovine in question had more in common with the 34 million head of cattle slaughtered every year than with the 200,000 "downers," banning the consumption of the latter was important -- perhaps equivalent to a "no-brainer" action -- but still largely irrelevant to the crisis at hand. Further, the decision to allow downer cows to be used for purposes such as cosmetics increased the likelihood that instead of consuming contamination, unsuspecting consumers would smear it over their bodies, a dubious improvement.

Courageous federal meat inspectors began to expose other inadequacies of the surveillance program. They publicly described such problems as the shifting definitions of what constitutes a downer cow, woefully inadequate training of inspectors, and wildly disproportionate levels of surveillance that result in beef processed in New York being 2,000 times more likely to be monitored than that produced in Nebraska and other high-production areas of the country. The reality of reform proved far less substantial than the rhetoric.

The final straw for USDA's credibility might well be at hand. In a desperate move to open the Japanese market, it agreed to segregate all cattle older than 30 months for special handling and marketing. No brains, spinal cords or other risky parts from older cows (which are far more likely to have mad cow disease) would enter the food chain. But then the head of the nation's meat inspector union wrote a letter to the USDA head of food safety saying that inspectors from across the country are officially reporting that segregation is not happening at many plants. Furthermore, when these inspectors determine from dental examination that older animals are being routinely slaughtered, there is nothing that they can do other than file a report that is ignored.

Instead of welcoming the opportunity to take corrective action, the USDA turned against the whistleblower, subjecting him to hours of intense interrogation.

Next, they questioned regional union leaders. The USDA then declared this latest reform to be effective. There was no scrutiny of the non-conformance reports that inspectors have been filing for months from across the country.

Meanwhile, the stain on the USDA seal of approval has grown even darker. The agency's much repeated slogan, "zero tolerance for contamination," is looking increasingly like "even less tolerance for whistleblowing."

Louis Clark is executive director of the Government Accountability Project (GAP) in Washington, D.C. GAP focuses on providing protection for federal employees who "blow the whistle" on wrongful actions by their employers.


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