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From: TSS ()
Subject: Alert in Latest Mad-Cow Case Was Delayed by a Misdiagnosis (came from pet food plant in TEXAS) WSJ
Date: June 27, 2005 at 8:33 am PST


Alert in Latest Mad-Cow Case
Was Delayed by a Misdiagnosis

By SCOTT KILMAN
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
June 27, 2005; Page A2

A misdiagnosis by U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists caused a seven-month delay in alerting consumers to the U.S.'s second case of mad-cow disease.

Because of the error, uncovered only at the prodding of the department's Inspector General Phyllis K. Fong and confirmed by British scientists Friday, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns unveiled several changes in the government's mad-cow testing program, some long sought by consumer advocates.

"Science is ever evolving.... And as we learn more, we apply the knowledge," said Mr. Johanns. He also highlighted some instances of human error in the case, including missing paperwork and sloppy handling of the beef cow's brain sample.

TALLYING MAD-COW


See a graphic that tallies world-wide cattle and human cases of mad-cow disease.



Probably no other American cow's brain has been tested so extensively as this one, which was collected at a pet-food-related plant in Texas. The female, which was at least eight years old, came to the attention of regulators in November when it was flagged by a preliminary rapid-screening test. The carcass was incinerated. After announcing a possible case of mad-cow disease, scientists at a USDA laboratory in Ames, Iowa, cleared the animal using a brain-tissue test called immunohistochemistry.

But questions persisted about the cow. Mr. Johanns, who was confirmed as agriculture secretary in January, disclosed Friday that the public wasn't told in November that an experimental test on the brain sample had detected abnormalities. "Obviously, it should have been reported," said John Clifford, the USDA's chief veterinary officer, who added that he wasn't aware until recently of the experimental work, which was designed to speed up the immunohistochemistry method, which normally takes days.

The inspector general's office, a watchdog agency within USDA that has highlighted problems in the department's testing program, learned of the conflicting test results and quietly enlisted a different group of USDA scientists to test the sample using a more-sensitive method, called Western blot, routinely employed in Europe.

When the Western blot test came up positive two weeks ago, Mr. Johanns ordered the matter settled by the world's premier mad-cow testing laboratory in Weybridge, England. The British laboratory managed to detect the abnormal prions that cause mad-cow disease using the immunohistochemistry technique, raising questions about the USDA's laboratory prowess.

Cattle prices are widely expected to drop at the start of trading today on fears that the new discovery will discourage countries such as Japan and South Korea from reopening borders they closed to American beef in December 2003. Those actions were taken after U.S. authorities found the brain-wasting disease in a Washington state dairy cow imported from Canada. So far, the U.S. has regained only one-third of that $3 billion export business.

"This case, I'm afraid, has to be taken into consideration," said Akira Chiba, spokesman for Japan's Foreign Ministry. An agreement by Japan in October to accept meat from U.S. cattle younger than 21 months has been mired in red tape there ever since. Taiwan closed its border again to U.S. beef immediately after the USDA's announcement Friday.

Mad-cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, can trigger a rare but always-fatal brain disorder in people who eat infected meat. The USDA hasn't found any evidence that the infected cow was imported; if it is confirmed that the animal was born in the U.S., it would make the U.S. the 24th nation to find an indigenous case of mad-cow disease since the malady was discovered in Britain in the 1980s.

Cattle contract BSE by eating feed contaminated with remains of other infected animals, so it is possible other U.S. cattle were exposed. (The U.S. and Canadian governments largely banned the use of rendered cattle material in cattle rations in August 1997, although there are some loopholes.) Regulators are now trying to find and test offspring, siblings and companions that might have shared the infected cow's rations.

Beef industry officials believe the vast majority of consumers still trust the USDA's declaration that the U.S. beef supply is safe. Over the past 12 months, the department has screened 388,000 of the 455,000 cattle it deemed most likely to have the disease, and the cow that died in Texas is the only new confirmed case. But NPD Group, a consumer research firm based in Port Washington, N.Y., said that 19% of the 500 consumers it surveyed in mid-May were extremely or very concerned about mad-cow disease.

---- Janet Adamy and Andrew Morse contributed to this article.

Write to Scott Kilman at scott.kilman@wsj.com

http://online.wsj.com/article/0,,SB111963867150169044,00.html?mod=djemHL

TSS




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