USDA Investigating Condemned Texas Cow
Author: Bob Burgdorfer and Richard Cowan
The department is collecting information on the Texas animal, USDA spokeswoman Alisa Harrison said last week, emphasizing there is no evidence yet that the animal may have had mad cow disease.
U.S. cattle futures fell early last week on a trading floor rumor that an animal in south-central Texas was being tested for mad cow disease.
"We do know that the animal was condemned and it didn't go into the meat supply," Harrison said.
Harrison added that early indications were that there "were not any samples taken" from the animal. Asked whether any tissue samples, such as from the animal's brain, were still available for testing, Harrison said, "I do not know."
Another USDA spokesman said the animal was exhibiting "central nervous signs" and officials rejected it from the food supply. "Whenever there is an animal with central nervous signs it's condemned," he added.
The U.S. agriculture sector was rocked in December when the first American case of mad cow disease was discovered. The finding put a halt to virtually all U.S. beef exports, which were valued at $3.8 billion in 2003.
Harrison said federal inspectors in Texas were being interviewed about the condemned animal.
"We have to go back and figure out exactly what happened and what the real situation is or isn't," she said.
In response to the Dec. 23 finding of mad cow disease in Washington state, the USDA announced steps to increase testing for the illness, which is linked to a fatal human disease that has killed 140 people, mostly in Europe.
USDA is focusing the added testing on "downer animals," those that cannot walk when arriving at a slaughterhouse, and other animals exhibiting central nervous system problems. Downer animals could be suffering from an illness as dangerous as mad cow disease or a problem more benign such as an injured leg.
Beverly Boyd, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Agriculture, said the condemned carcass in San Angelo was not held back for testing. "There were no tissue samples taken. It was not tested at all," she told Reuters.
Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, questioned why USDA may have failed to test the condemned animal.
"If they're not testing the cattle most highly recommended for testing, it would appear USDA is not really looking to find the problem where it may exist," DeWaal said.
There are an estimated 200,000 downer cattle in the United States each year. USDA is working on a program that aims to test all of those animals for mad cow disease. But the program is not fully operational yet.
When the USDA reported the first and only case of mad cow disease in the U.S., cattle futures plummeted nearly 20 percent over several days. The free-fall ended after U.S. consumers showed no concern about the safety of American beef.
Even if the condemned Texas animal exhibited a central nervous system disorder, it could have been suffering from one of several illnesses besides mad cow disease, according to veterinarians.