- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 30, 2003

U.S. agriculture officials will continue using a test for mad cow disease that takes more than a week to obtain results, despite cries from consumer groups to authorize the use of faster systems adopted in Europe.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said yesterday it would make changes to the way cattle are processed and slaughtered, but would maintain the method of testing for mad cow disease because it is the most accurate and recommended.

The USDA’s system, known as immunohistochemistry, involves euthanizing a cow suspected of having the disease, removing part of its brain and analyzing the tissue under a microscope. Two antibodies are added to the brain sample. When they come into contact with the abnormal protein that causes mad cow disease, also called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), the antibodies combine and produce a color change.

The test itself takes two to three days to complete, but can be done only after preparation of the sample, which can take up to five days.

The United States tested about 20,000 cattle in 2003, out of more than 100 million animals in the total herd. Consumer groups said the testing needs to be more widespread, and pushed for the adoption of five “rapid” tests, which are similar in design but can provide results in hours. The tests are used by countries in the European Union.

The USDA said it has chosen not to adopt the new tests because they have been known to produce “false alarms,” or show an animal to be infected when it is not. In addition, the USDA said the current tests are considered the “gold standard” by the World Health Organization and the Office of International Epizootics (OIE), a global organization that sets standards for animal health.

“We have to find a balance. … If we have repeated false positives, the industry will be hurt, because this is productivity to them, this is their time,” said Dore Mobley, a spokeswoman for the USDA’s Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service.

Even before the case of mad cow disease was discovered in the United States, consumer groups pushed for different and more widespread testing of cattle. Officials from the nonprofit Consumers Union urged the USDA to adopt rapid testing as far back as July, after a case of mad cow disease was discovered in Canada.

The International Health Code published by the OIE shows that the U.S. rate of testing is more than 46 times higher than what is recommended for cattle that have displayed symptoms of mad cow disease.

But the Consumers Union said the USDA must cast a wider net, and test all cattle that have fallen ill or died for reasons other than routine slaughter, including those that have died on farms. The General Accounting Office made a similar recommendation in February 2002, pointing out that most cows that die before entering the slaughterhouse are not tested, even though they still could enter the food chain.

“With regard to animal testing to detect BSE, although the USDA has steadily increased the number of animals it tests, it does not include many animals that die on farms,” the GAO report said. “Experts consider this a high-risk population.”

One of the major drawbacks to current mad cow tests is that they can’t work until symptoms of the disease appear, and the abnormal proteins that cause the disease can’t be detected in the bloodstream.

The USDA announced in 1999 that a researcher had developed such a test for “scrapies,” a disease similar to mad cow found in sheep. But the test could not be successfully replicated, and it is unclear whether it could have worked to detect mad cow disease.

“It didn’t really pan out,” said Sandy Miller Hays, a spokeswoman for the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service. “It looked really promising at the time.”

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