Associated PressWhen questioned about why the Bush Administration would reduce testing to 1/10th its current level shortly after a cow in Alabama was confirmed to have the disease, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns explained, "Keep in mind the testing was for surveillance. It was to get an idea of the condition of the herd."
Update 12: Government to Scale Back Mad Cow Testing
By LIBBY QUAID , 03.14.2006, 06:20 PM
Despite the confirmation of a third case of mad cow disease, the government intends to scale back testing for the brain-wasting disorder blamed for the deaths of more than 150 people in Europe.
Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) is the cow form of an incurable brain disease known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSE) which can be transmitted between several mammal species. In sheep the disease has long been called scrapie; in humans it is known as vJCD (variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease). Scientists have identified prions as the infectious agent behind this neuron-destroying illness.
The only way for a cow to get mad cow disease is to ingest infectious prions from the brain or blood of an animal that has the disease. Prevention shouldn't be much of a problem, since cows are naturally vegetarian. Unfortunately the feed industry has long used waste animal matter in cattle feed as a way to quickly bulk up cows. Our government has recommended that this practice be stopped, but compliance is voluntary.
The upshot is that if a cow in Alabama tested positive for BSE then the "condition of the herd" to use Johanns phrase, is that the herd is still munching on contaminated feed.
Unfortunately mad cow disease has to eat away at neurons in the brain for years before a cow becomes noticeably ill. (In fact, BSE flies under the radar for the first 2 years or so before the best scientific tests can even detect its presence.) Eventually the cow will lose so many neurons it will have difficulty walking or standing and become a "downer". Downers are no longer allowed into the human food chain. But for every downer with BSE there must be other infected cows whose disease hasn't progressed to that stage yet. There is nothing to prevent them from ending up in your hamburger.
For the last few years the Department of Agriculture has been testing 1% of the cows entering slaughterhouses. The new plan is to reduce it to 1/10th of 1%. According to Jean Halloran of Consumers Union, "This starts to be so small that in our opinion, it approaches a policy of don't look, don't find."
It usually takes a decade or so before the symptoms of vJCD show up in humans.