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USDA refuses to release mad cow records


By Steve Mitchell Jun 28, 2005, 22:23 GMT



WASHINGTON, DC, United States (UPI) -- U.S. Department of Agriculture officials have refused to release documents requested more than six months ago by a consumer group related to the agency`s safeguards against mad cow disease.

USDA officials insist their policies are keeping consumers safe from the disease, which can be spread to humans who eat meat infected with the mad cow pathogen, but consumer advocates suspect those safeguards are being violated, thereby exposing people to the deadly disease.

The department`s resistance comes on the heels of the revelation last week that a cow the agency deemed to be free of mad cow disease last November actually was infected, marking the second case of mad cow detected among U.S. herds.

The watchdog group Public Citizen filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act last December for reports documenting how certain safety policies are being violated at slaughterhouses and how banned parts of older cows, such as the brain and spinal cord, have been entering the human food supply.

Felicia Nestor, a consultant to Public Citizen who works with federal whistleblowers, told United Press International she has seen at least four USDA reports -- called non-compliance reports or NRs -- documenting such violations. Nestor said USDA officials have acknowledged there are others.

"They`re stonewalling," Nestor said of the agency`s refusal to comply with the FOIA request.

"It looks like they avoided testing that cow in November and now it looks like they don`t want this information to become public," she added.

"People should be concerned," Tony Corbo of Public Citizen told UPI. "The USDA has been touting this as one of their firewalls, that they`re removing these risky materials," he said. "If there are lapses in that, it could put the food supply in jeopardy."

The regulations require the removal of brain, spinal cords and other parts of cows over the age of 30 months, also known as specified-risk materials or SRMs. They were instituted in January 2004, in the wake of the first U.S. case of mad cow disease, to protect consumers if additional cases appeared.

Humans can contract a deadly, incurable brain illness called variant Creutzfeldt Jakob disease from eating beef products contaminated with mad cow. Cooking does not destroy the pathogen.

USDA officials have stated publicly and testified before Congress that the SRM ban is the most important action the agency has taken to protect humans from the disease.


If the SRMs from just one infected cow slip into the food supply, they could have widespread implications. The meat from the first U.S. mad cow case in 2003 was distributed to 578 establishments in eight states and Guam. Ultimately, 38,000 pounds of potentially contaminated beef products had to be recalled.

The allegations of violations of the SRM policy were first raised last December by Stanley Painter, a meat inspector and chairman of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, the union representing federal meat inspectors.

"The NRs are going to prove exactly what we said, and the agency doesn`t want this out, especially after the November cow tested positive," Painter told UPI. "It just amazes me the American people aren`t concerned. There`s a potential number of people who could die from this."

USDA officials have denied Painter`s allegations, saying they have not found any information to substantiate his claims. The agency`s Office of Inspector General, however, has begun an investigation into the allegations and has interviewed both Painter and Nestor, who have spoken with other inspectors who said they have observed violations of the SRM policy.

In a sworn affidavit prepared earlier this month, Nestor said during a Jan. 27 private meeting with consumers groups, Barbara Masters, acting administrator of USDA`s Food Safety and Inspection Service, "stated that the agency routinely looks at the data and that they had always been aware of some `low level of non-compliance` with the SRM regulations."

Nestor said Masters added that when she learned of Painter`s allegations, "the agency reviewed the NRs again and found" some that would seem to substantiate his claims.

Corbo, who also was present at the January meeting, previously confirmed Nestor`s account to UPI.

During another private meeting with consumer groups last month, Nestor said she pressed Merle Pierson, USDA`s acting undersecretary for food safety, to cite what was unsubstantiated about Painter`s allegations. According to Nestor, Pierson replied that because Painter had not named the plants where the violations were occurring, the agency could not be certain the NRs they were aware of were the same ones referred to by Painter. A second source confirmed this account.

By federal law, the USDA has 30 days to respond to a FOIA request, but so far the agency has failed to fulfill this requirement to Public Citizen.

Corbo said he was told in May he would be given the reports during the first week of June.

That week came and passed.

"Then they said it would be here last week," he said. Corbo talked to the FOIA office Tuesday morning and said he now has been informed the reason for the delay is the review process has taken longer than expected. He added that FOIA officials said they could not tell him when he could expect to receive the documents.

Despite the missteps in testing the November cow, the USDA has assured the public the beef supply is safe. Last week, after acknowledging the agency still doesn`t know where the infected animal originated from seven months after it was slaughtered, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said the cow did not go into the food supply and "Americans have every reason to continue to be confident in the safety of our beef."

The USDA has been attempting to persuade Japanese officials to reopen their borders to U.S. beef, and apparently Painter`s allegations have been a sticking point. The U.S. Embassy in Japan has posted on its Web site a statement denying his allegations and that USDA officials have asked the Office of Inspector General to consider conducting a criminal investigation regarding Painter.

Corbo and Nestor said this could be a violation of the Whistleblower Protection Act.

Upon learning of the U.S. Embassy notice, Painter said he contacted OIG officials and was informed they had received the request for a criminal investigation but did not pursue it because their examination did not indicate Painter had committed any crime.

Painter said his attorney wrote the USDA June 17 and requested the statement be removed from the embassy`s Web site. To date, the agency has not responded and the notice remains.

OIG declined to comment on this case.

USDA did not respond to UPI`s request for comment by press time.

E-mail: [email protected]

Copyright 2005 by United Press International
 

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