- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 3, 2004

The U.S. Agriculture Department’s inspector general is investigating possible falsification of records in the country’s first case of mad cow disease, a process that could lead to criminal charges.

“We initiated our inquiry based on allegations that were reported in the media in early February concerning possible alteration of official records. This is an active and open case,” Phyllis K. Fong, the department’s inspector general, told a House panel yesterday.

Agriculture Department (USDA) officials said that the infected cow had been a “downer” — unable to walk and therefore a likely candidate for routine testing. The downer label helped reassure consumers that federal safeguards worked to protect the food supply.

“The presumptive positive today is a result of our aggressive surveillance program. This is a clear indication that our surveillance and detection program is working,” Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman said Dec. 23 when she announced preliminary test results indicating mad cow disease had reached the United States.

The New York Times on Feb. 2 published an article citing Dave Louthan, the employee of Vern’s Moses Lake Meats in Moses Lake, Wash., who killed the infected cow. Mr. Louthan said that the cow was not too sick to walk and was not caught by routine surveillance, but rather by “a fluke.”

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, and Rep. Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat, also investigated the Agriculture Department’s claims through the Government Reform Committee. The lawmakers identified three witnesses, including Mr. Louthan, who said they saw the cow walk on the day it was slaughtered.

“If this information is true, it could have serious implications for both the adequacy of the national [mad cow] surveillance system and the credibility of the USDA,” they said in a Feb. 17 letter to Mrs. Veneman.

Mrs. Veneman, in a letter Feb. 19, said that the agency is “interested in getting to the bottom of this matter.”

The USDA had initially refuted Mr. Louthan’s claim but has since qualified earlier statements. Dr. Ron DeHaven, chief veterinary officer for the Agriculture Department, on Feb. 23 said the statement was based on Food Safety Inspection Service records stating that a veterinarian examined the animal in a “recumbent position.”

“Having said that, there is nothing saying that an animal that is down cannot get up. So in fact both accounts could potentially be true,” Dr. DeHaven said.

The Agriculture Department targets downer animals for mad cow testing because the inability to walk is a symptom of the disease. Mad cow, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is a fatal disease that attacks the central nervous systems of cattle. Though rare, it also can infect humans who eat tainted nervous tissue.

The Agriculture Department has repeatedly cited what it calls an aggressive surveillance program that protects the food supply. But the accusations, if true, would likely lead to calls for an expanded, and more costly, program.

In addition to the investigation, the inspector general’s office also is reviewing USDA’s response to the discovery of mad cow and changes to slaughter and inspection operations announced since Dec. 23.

“Our goal is to work with USDA to identify areas where USDA can strengthen its controls and processes to provide continuing assurance that the U.S. meat supply is safe, wholesome and properly labeled,” Ms. Fong said.

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