Whistle blowers say mad cow disease testing must be improved

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Members of several groups came together this morning (Thursday) to voice their concerns about the way the government has been handling the discovery of mad cow disease in the United States. The group voiced concerns over everything from how animals are tested to which animals are tested for Bovine Spongiform Encephalophathy, or BSE.

Felicia Nestor, food safety director for the Government Accountability Project, told reporters during the news conference that since the discovery of the disease in the United States a number of whistle blowers in the food industry have come forth. Whistle blowers who are pointing to practices taking place that they feel could jeopardize public health.

Nestor said whistle blowers in the industry have talked about meat plant employees being given a pair of tweezers and a teaspoon-like scooper and told to take samples for testing.

"There is no manual or written guidance material," Nestor said.

George Pauley, a United States Department of Agriculture inspector and a member of the Northeast Council Food Inspection Locals, said he has been with the USDA for more than 10 years and has served as a relief inspector at plants throughout the Northeast. Pauley said during his time serving as an inspector he has never received formal training in the detection of BSE.

Pauley told those in attendance that he could remember watching a video on the subject after the disease was found in the United Kingdom, and said he is still awaiting training since the discovery of mad cow disease in the U.S. several weeks ago.

"In my opinion, BSE is a serious issue," Pauley said. "It wasn't a question of if this would happen, it was just when. Now that it has happened, I strongly feel that we should take measures to ensure the safety of this nation's food supply."

Those groups represented at the conference this morning, including the Consumers Union Consumer Policy Institute and the Public Citizen's Energy and Environment Program, had several suggestions for the U.S. government when it comes to ensuring the safety of the meat supply.

Michael Hansen, senior research associate with the Consumers Union Consumer Policy Institute, said he feels the first thing the government should do is start testing all animals over the age of 20 months, as opposed to the 30- month age limit the government has in place now. He said the reason for this is that although most animals don't show symptoms of the disease until they are 30 months old, there have been cases found in other countries where an animal under 30 months of age has tested positive for mad cow disease.

Hansen also stated that animals whose age is unknown should automatically be tested for the disease, as well as all downer cows.

Hansen said he feels the testing should also be done by people who are trained by government inspectors. He explained that he feels there is a distinct conflict of interest having people who work in meat plants taking the samples.

Pauley explained that in his experience the people who decide which animals to test are often times the people at the processing plants. He said when he was involved, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) would call the plant before it was planning on doing inspections and ask them to have a certain number of downer heads ready for them to test. Pauley said in his experience, APHIS would then test the heads that were given to them.

Pauley said he feels there is a need for a third party at the plants who could decide which animals would be tested. He said he also feels there should be more stringent guidelines used at plants to decide which animals are required to be tested.

Before the news conference those organizations represented took time to speak with congressional aides about their concerns.

. Elena Olmstead can be contacted at (509) 837-4500, or e-mail her at eolmstead@eaglenewspapers.com


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