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From: TSS ()
Subject: Ag Secretary Questions New Mad Cow Tests $$$
Date: June 24, 2005 at 12:25 pm PST

Associated Press
Ag Secretary Questions New Mad Cow Tests
06.24.2005, 03:07 PM

Amid uproar from cattlemen, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns questioned why his department's inspector general ordered new tests for mad cow disease two weeks ago without his knowledge or approval.

"It caught me by surprise, to be very honest with you," Johanns told reporters Friday. "I believe the secretary should be involved in all decisions of this significance."

The department said it would announce results of the tests Friday afternoon.

New tests were ordered earlier this month on an animal declared to be free of mad cow disease. Brain tissue samples had initially tested positive, but more sophisticated screening came back negative, and the animal was declared to be free of mad cow disease last November.

The inspector general's office, an independent arm of the department that performs audits and investigations, suddenly ordered a new round of tests two weeks ago. Inspector General Phyllis Fong has not explained why.

Johanns said it's up for debate whether Fong had the authority to order the new tests. The inspector general has the right to perform audits, but operations of the department are run by the secretary, he said.

"If it's operational, then it's my domain," Johanns said. "She could recommend; she could strongly urge. But then the question is whether it's an operational decision."

He said he learned of the order from his chief of staff after the new testing was under way.

"I was asked by the Senate and the president to operate the department," he said. "I believe, in this area, very clearly, the secretary should be consulted, whoever the secretary is, before testing is undertaken. From my standpoint, I believe I was put there to operate the department and was very disappointed."

The department has come under fire from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association for a scattershot approach to testing that has hurt the cattle industry.

Criticism has also come from scientists and consumer groups. They said the department should have done another round of tests back in November. The test ordered by the inspector general, called a Western blot, is frequently used to resolve conflicting results.

In November, the department did initial screening using a "rapid test," then used a more detailed immunohistochemistry test, or IHC.

"If you had what they had, you would immediately go to the Western blot and get a third test method and see which one of the previous two was more accurate," said Paul W. Brown, a former National Institutes of Health scientist who spent his career working on mad cow-related issues. "The protocol should be whatever is required to resolve results which are contradictory."

Mad cow disease, formally called bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, happens when proteins called prions bend into misfolded shapes, depositing plaque that kills brain cells and leaves spongy holes behind.

A form of the disease in people, called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, has been linked to eating contaminated meat. The disease has killed about 150 people worldwide, mostly in Britain, where there was an outbreak in the 1990s.


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