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From: TSS ()
Subject: USDA DOCUMENTS SHOW MAD COW VIOLATIONS
Date: July 20, 2005 at 6:31 am PST

USDA documents show mad cow violations
By Steve Mitchell
Medical Correspondent
Published 7/19/2005 6:29 PM

WASHINGTON, July 19 (UPI) -- The U.S. Department of
Agriculture claims it has found no evidence to support
allegations by one of its meat inspectors that mad cow
disease safeguards are being violated, possibly
exposing consumers to the deadly illness, but United
Press International has seen internal agency documents
that verify violations have occurred for many months.

The documents, called non-compliance reports or NRs,
show several instances in which slaughterhouses were
cited by USDA inspectors for not properly marking cows
over the age of 30 months. This means the specified
risk materials, or SRMs -- brains, spinal cords and
other parts of the animals deemed to be the most risky
for transmitting mad cow disease to humans -- did not
have to be removed.

The failure to correctly identify older animals or
remove the SRMS is a violation of a USDA policy
established in 2004, after the first confirmed case of
mad cow in U.S. herds was announced. That policy was
meant to protect consumers if additional mad cow cases
were detected.

Stanley Painter, a USDA inspector and chairman of the
National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals,
claimed last December he knew of several instances in
which this policy had been violated. Painter said
union officials worried that many violations may go
undetected and SRMs could enter the food supply if
shortcomings in the USDA policy were not fixed.

The concern is humans can contract a fatal brain
illness called variant Creutzfeldt Jakob disease from
consuming beef products contaminated with the mad cow
pathogen -- which is not destroyed by cooking.

Felicia Nestor, a consultant to the watchdog group
Public Citizen, said she also has seen NRs that
support the allegations. Nestor said interviews with
inspectors, together with information contained in the
documents, indicate the infractions have been
occurring for a year and a half.

"I talked to an inspector last week who said it's
still going on," Nestor told UPI. "I've seen or heard
of violations that span almost a year and a half," she
said.

USDA officials, who said previously the agency had
conducted an investigation and found no evidence
supporting Painter's claims, said the NRs are a signal
the SRM ban is being adequately enforced.

"The existence of NRs demonstrates that enforcement of
(mad cow) regulations is being effectively carried
out," Steven Cohen, an agency spokesman, told UPI.

Asked if the USDA presumes its inspectors catch every
violation, Cohen did not answer and hung up the
telephone.

Nestor said inspectors have told her they do not think
all of the infractions have been caught and they are
concerned some SRMs from older cows may have reached
consumers.

"So people may have eaten this stuff," she said.

Although the non-compliance reports UPI viewed
indicated the beef products from the older cows were
condemned and did not make it into the food supply,
some of the documents suggested the products were
ready for distribution and could have reached
consumers if they had not been caught at the last
moment.

Nestor said based on what she remembers of the NRs,
combined with discussions with inspectors, the SRM
violations affected thousands of pounds of meat. In
some cases, Nestor said, inspectors have told her a
processing plant has been cited several times many
months apart for SRM violations, suggesting the
problem may not have been corrected in the intervening
months.

Cohen said when a slaughterhouse receives an NR, "the
plant is required to take immediate corrective action
to prevent a repetition of the event."

This presumes the animals involved appeared healthy,
or they would not have been permitted for human
consumption, but this does not mean they were free of
mad cow disease. In Europe, hundreds of seemingly
healthy animals have tested positive for the disease.

In addition, mad cow disease has existed in the United
States for several years, if not longer. The infected
Washington cow came into the country from Canada in
2001 and the disease may have been circulating in U.S.
herds as far back as the early 1990s -- the Texas cow
that recently tested positive for the disease was born
around 1992 and could have become infected at that
time.

Nestor said due to inadequate USDA policies and a lack
of training and instruction, some inspectors may not
be catching SRM violations, while other violations
might not be documented.

"So there may not be NRs for a variety of reasons and
the NRs we are aware of are probably just a portion of
what the inspectors saw and that's probably the tip of
the iceberg of what actually occurred at plants across
the country," she said.

The USDA has refused to turn over other NRs it might
be holding in response to a request made by Public
Citizen last December under the Freedom of Information
Act. By federal law, the agency is required to respond
in 30 days, but so far the request has been pending
for 120 business days.

Nestor said that during a meeting with consumer groups
earlier this month, Merle Pierson, USDAs acting
undersecretary for food safety, said the reason for
the delay in fulfilling Public Citizen's FOIA request
is the agency's computer system makes it difficult to
search for NRs.

Nestor said if that is true, it calls into question
the USDA's public statements back in December -- when
the SRM allegations first emerged -- that the SRM
verification process was working.

"How could they do that when eight months later
they're saying they still haven't gotten to the bottom
of the evidence in their own computer system?" she
asked.

Cohen said fulfilling the FOIA request "is a massive
undertaking in time and resources" and has required
bringing in additional staff to respond "as quickly as
possible."

Painter first raised the issue with USDA officials in
a letter last December. After receiving no response,
Painter informed media representatives about his
concerns and was subsequently interrogated twice by
the USDA and charged with personal misconduct.

Painter, consumer groups and at least one Member of
Congress -- Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y. -- have
charged the USDA's actions were intended to intimidate
and retaliate against him for divulging the
information.

Painter's allegations apparently have been an issue in
the U.S. government's ongoing negotiations with Japan
to open their borders to U.S. beef imports. The State
Department recently posted a notice on the Web site of
the U.S. Embassy in Japan stating USDA officials found
no evidence to substantiate Painter's claims and had
requested a criminal investigation into his actions.
USDA officials subsequently said the statement was
erroneous and it was removed in July three days after
UPI reported its existence.

Cohen said the USDA interviewed other union officials
and they said they had not been contacted by
inspectors concerned the SRM regulations were not
being enforced.

Nestor disputed that assertion, saying she had talked
with one inspector who had been interviewed by the
agency who said he never was asked that question.

"It's a falsehood," Nestor said. "It's another
misrepresentation designed to call Painter's
credibility into question. She added that other
inspectors with whom she has spoken said they are
concerned about the implications of the SRM
violations.

"People are terrified to talk, but when I talk to them
they recognize it as a major problem," she said. "They
actually even sound kind of incredulous that it still
could be going on."

Cohen said the agency "will continue to seek
information relevant to these issues and reminds all
personnel of their ability to directly contact the
Office of Inspector General should they desire."

The OIG has launched an investigation to determine
whether the SRM ban is being effectively implemented
and results are due by the end of the summer.

--

E-mail: sciencemail@upi.com

Copyright © 2001-2005 United Press International


http://www.upi.com/view.cfm?StoryID=20050719-050502-6016r

TSS



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