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USDA Closes Only Mad Cow Disease Testing Laboratory in Northwest

On March 1, 2007, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) closed one of its mad
cow disease testing laboratories. The lab, which was located at Washington State
University (WSU) in Pullman, was the only one of its kind in the Northwest. Mad cow
disease is a fatal brain disorder that occurs when an animal is infected by bovine
spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). In humans, the condition is known as variant
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) and is linked to eating the contaminated meat from
cows infected by BSE.
The closing of labs at WSU and at other locations across the U.S. is occurring because
USDA officials have deemed the overall threat posed by mad cow disease to be
“extraordinarily low” and not warranting a large-scale, expensive tracking program. In
response to the purportedly low risk, the agency is reducing testing by 90%. Since
screening began, only three of 759,000 animals tested nationwide were positive for mad
cow. Of the 45,000 animals tested at the lab in Pullman, only one tested positive for
BSE—a dairy cow from a farm in Mabton, WA, in December 2003.

While the USDA implemented screening and other precautionary measures following the
initial anxiety over the first mad cow disease case, some advocacy groups feel the agency
has not done enough to protect consumers. “There have been some improvements, but
USDA stopped short of implementing several important programs that are vital not only
to protect against (mad cow disease), but to protect the industry against other diseases,”
said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the
Public Interest, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group.

Since the disease was first discovered in the United Kingdom (UK) in 1986, more than
180,000 cattle worldwide have been infected with mad cow disease. Approximately 158
people, mostly in the UK, have died from definite or probable vCJD since 1990.

Although there have been four reported cases of vCJD transmission via blood
transfusions in the UK, none has been associated with plasma-derived factor concentrates
used to treat hemophilia. Further, there have been no reported cases of vCJD transmission
through the U.S. blood supply. Currently, tests are being developed to detect vCJD and
vCJD infections in blood and plasma donors. Since 1999, the U.S. Food and Drug
Administration has enforced donor deferral policies among all blood donations from
people who lived or visited the UK for three months or longer between 1980 and 1996.

Source: The Oregonian, February 25, 2007