CU urges USDA to adopt Western blot as definitive mad cow test

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June 13, 2005

Consumers Union urges USDA to adopt western blot as definitive mad cow test

Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, today once again implored the U.S. Department of Agriculture to adopt the Western blot test in addition to its current testing methods to determine if a suspected animal has mad cow disease. In light of the positive Western blot test on an animal originally testing negative in November, Consumers Union is urging USDA to immediately send brain tissue to a laboratory in England for independent confirmation. Consumers Union is also urging USDA to rapidly complete the process of tracing the origins of the animal, as well as other animals in the herd.
“We have been urging the USDA since February to retest the November suspect animal using the more sensitive Western blot test, and we recommend USDA for taking this extra step to protect the safety of America’s beef,” stated Michael Hansen, Ph.D., a biologist and a spokesman for Consumers Union’s www.NotInMyFood.org project. “USDA now needs to complete its assessment by utilizing the expertise of the experts in the UK.” Although USDA said last Friday that it would send brain tissue to the UK Weybridge laboratory, so far it has not done so.
“The Western blot test, which concentrates the brain sample, can detect mad cow disease in an animal at an earlier stage of infection. It is used in virtually all European countries and Japan, in addition to or sometimes instead of, the immunohistochemistry (IHC) test routinely employed by USDA. USDA has gone the extra mile for the American consumer by running the Western blot test, and it has paid off in terms of alerting us to a problem,” Hansen said.
“We are not aware of any reports of false positives on the Western blot test in the scientific literature, assuming it has been conducted properly,” Hansen said.
“USDA needs to get on with the task of tracing this animal back to its origins, and should test other animals than may have shared its rations,” he said. Consumers Union also urges USDA to test all cattle at slaughter that are over 20 months old. Current test technology cannot detect the disease in animals younger than 20 months.
Hansen said, “This case highlights the urgent need for FDA to tighten up its cattle feed regulations to eliminate material that could include the infectious prions that transmit mad cow disease. FDA stated more than a year ago that it would prohibit cows’ blood, chicken coop floor wastes, and restaurant plate wastes, in cattle feed but has not done so.” Consumers Union urges that these risky materials, as well as pig and chicken slaughterhouse wastes, be eliminated from cattle feed.
Consumers Union says that those who want to minimize any possible risk of exposure to mad cow disease can buy organic beef, which cannot be fed any animal by-products. Consumers Union also states that the cuts that are least likely to contain the infectious agent are solid cuts of beef with no bone in them. The riskiest materials are brains, followed by cuts like hamburger and sausage which, if not properly handled in the slaughterhouse, may contain central nervous system tissue.
Consumers Union wrote John R. Clifford, Deputy Administrator of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in January, urging the agency to employ the Western blot test on all past and future suspect mad cow cases, and obtain independent review of any positive test results from the expert laboratory in Weybridge, England. It wrote on the same topic to Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns in February. Dr. Hansen again also urged USDA officials to utilize the Western blot at a meeting of the National Academies Institute of Medicine in Washington, DC on June 6, 2005.
For more information contact:
Michael Hansen 914-378-2452 (w) 917-774-3801 (c)
Jean Halloran 914-378-2457