Springfield State Journal Register

January 9, 2004

Durbin asks why it took so long to confirm mad cow case


WASHINGTON - Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., on Thursday questioned why it took the U.S. Department of Agriculture nearly two weeks to test and diagnose mad cow disease in an animal from Washington state, the first case of an infected cow in the country.

"I am extremely concerned with the chronology of events that led to the diagnosis" of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, more commonly known as mad cow disease, Durbin wrote in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Anne Veneman.

"The United States food supply is the safest in the world," Durbin said. "However, the delay in this case raises some serious questions about the BSE testing process. I have asked Secretary Veneman to help get to the bottom of this so that Americans will know the system is working and that the food
supply remains safe."

Specifically, Durbin wants to know why the animal's samples weren't given high priority for testing. The USDA took brain samples from the animal on Dec. 9 at the time it was slaughtered. 

The animal wasn't walking, but its symptoms were attributed to problems from birth. As a result, the samples weren't given high priority and the diagnosis wasn't made until Dec. 22 - a time lapse of 13 days. Durbin said the test can be done as quickly as five to seven days.

The animal's history indicates the cow was suffering from calving paralysis, a neurological disorder with symptoms indistinguishable from the symptoms of mad cow disease, Durbin said.

"Do USDA inspectors have special clinical knowledge that allows them to differentiate the symptoms of calving paralysis from those almost identical symptoms of BSE? If not, why was this animal not identified as a BSE suspect and her samples given priority status?" Durbin asked in the letter to Veneman.

Durbin said the case shows why the USDA should take a more aggressive approach in testing cattle. In response to Durbin, a USDA spokesman said the inspection system worked as intended.

"I think the system worked rather well. The sample was taken, and central nervous system tissues never entered the food chain," said spokesman Ed Loyd.

Specialists believe the disease is carried through the brain and central nervous system tissues. The diagnosis on Dec. 22 led to a recall of 10,000 pounds of beef two days later.

Loyd noted that Veneman announced the suspected case before the additional testing to confirm the diagnosis was complete.