WASHINGTON (AP) – The Agriculture Department’s stepped-up surveillance to detect mad cow disease has flaws that may lead to understating the disease and hinder an assessment of risk, according to the department’s inspector general.

But department officials said Tuesday the draft report reflected a “snapshot” of the testing program in March, when it had not yet officially begun, and some of the key concerns have been addressed.

“We are testing precisely the population of animals that should be tested,” Ron DeHaven, administrator of the department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, told reporters in a conference call to respond to the report. He said the priority is protecting public health.

When the surveillance program is complete in 12 to 18 months with more than 260,000 tests, he said, “we hope to have some very good data” on whether mad cow disease is in the country’s national herd.

Still, DeHaven and other department officials conceded the IG report raised some issues that needed to be addressed. For example, it found some cattle with nervous system problems were not being tested. DeHaven said that is no longer true in the new surveillance plan.

“We recognized a lot of shortcomings in the previous plan,” said DeHaven.

But Rep. Henry Waxman of California, ranking Democrat on the Government Reform Committee who released a copy of the IG report Tuesday, said the audit found “major flaws” in the screening that put the program’s credibility into question.

Waxman wrote to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman that the report would be a focus of a Wednesday hearing by his panel into the government’s response to the threat of mad cow disease.

There has been only one case of mad cow disease – bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE – in the United States. A sick Holstein was discovered on a farm in Mabton, Wash., in December. More than 50 countries then cut off imports of U.S. beef and at least 700 more cattle in Washington state were killed as a precaution.

The disease affects the animal’s brain and nervous system. People who eat products containing the BSE protein can contract a rare but fatal disease similar to BSE, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

While there is no test for mad cow disease when an animal is alive, the new surveillance system is aimed at singling out animals at highest risk and determining the prevalence of mad cow – if in fact it exists – in the U.S. herd.

DeHaven said since the new surveillance began June 1, just over 11,000 carcasses have been screened, leading to two “inconclusive” findings. Follow-up tests showed no presence of the disease.

The USDA inspector general’s draft report said the testing program is poorly designed, relies on a false assumption that only high-risk animals are infected, and relies inappropriately on a voluntary submission of samples for testing.

These and other shortcomings, if not corrected, could impair the ability of the surveillance program “to perform risk assessments and program evaluations and reduce the credibility of any assertion regarding the prevalence of BSE in the United States,” the report said.

Among concerns cited by the IG audit was that samples are not random because they are voluntary and the program assumes the disease will not be found in healthy animals when that may not always be the case. It also said some cattle with nervous disorders – a key potential warning sign – were not being tested. It also criticized the practice of not testing animals for mad cow disease when they have shown symptoms of rabies, but in fact were found not to have that disease. The symptoms of the two diseases are in some ways similar.

DeHaven said some issues – shoddy record keeping and a failure to test some cattle with nervous disorders or signs of rabies, for example – have been addressed. The program envisions testing 20,000 healthy, elderly animals as well, but the auditors said that’s only a small faction of the 45 million adult cattle in the United States.

At the same time, Waxman raised anew the question of whether the Agriculture Department misled the public on what led to the mad cow discovery last December. The department says the tests were triggered when the cow was declared a “downer” by a veterinarian.

However, Waxman said the IG investigation found three witnesses who said they observed the cow standing and walking. By declaring the cow a downer, it made it easier for the department to respond to the discovery of a mad cow case by focusing on downer livestock, Waxman said.

Department officials Tuesday stood by the finding that the cow was a downer. Barbara Masters, acting administrator for food safety, said the IG report “found no evidence of any record falsifications” in connection with the matter.

On the Net:

Agriculture Department: www.usda.gov

House Government Reform Committee: http://reform.house.gov

AP-ES-07-13-04 1814EDT

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