20 July 2004

From Today's New York Times

U.S.D.A.'s Testing Problem

In the past seven months—ever since a case of mad-cow disease was discovered in Washington State—the United States Department of Agriculture has been working hard to reduce the risk of the disease spreading. It is slowly introducing restrictions on how the most susceptible bovine tissues can be used, and it has found money to begin developing a national animal-identification system. But there are still gaps in the department's efforts to guarantee a safe meat supply. One is chronological. America squandered a decade in which it could have been absorbing the lessons learned from the British mad-cow crisis. The other critical failing is the U.S.D.A.'s testing program itself.

In Britain and Japan, every cow bound for market is tested for the disease. The number of cattle tested in the United States has risen tenfold, but is still just a small fraction of the national slaughter herd. And in a draft report, the department's inspector general has sharply criticized its new testing program. The chief objection? Testing is voluntary, which undermines the statistical validity of the program. The new rules' design assumes what only careful testing can confirm, that mad-cow disease is probably very scarce in this country.

Agriculture Department officials have said that the inspector general's draft report contains nothing that "would suggest there has been any compromise to public health." But it is impossible to know whether public health has been compromised without a competent testing program. Quite clearly, the U.S.D.A. balks at the cost and logistics of mandatory inspections of cattle at meatpacking plants. And it seems convinced that the threat of mad-cow disease can be evaluated by voluntary inspections of cattle that appear sick. But one reason other countries are so strict about inspections is that mad-cow disease can be present in cattle that look healthy. The best way to ensure public safety and global confidence in the American beef market is to require testing that is stringent and extensive enough to tell us how safe we really are and how confident we really should be.

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