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May 06, 2005
Feds probing alleged mad cow cover-up
By STEVE MITCHELL
WASHINGTON, May 2 (UPI) -- Federal investigators are looking into
allegations by a former U.S. Agriculture Department inspector that the
agency sought to cover up cases of mad cow disease, United Press
International has learned.
Lester Friedlander, a former USDA veterinarian, told UPI he was questioned
recently by two representatives from the USDA's Office of Inspector General
who were investigating statements he made before Canada's Parliament in
"I told them I think there's a cover-up," said Friedlander, a 10-year
veteran of the USDA who received official praise and recognition for
outstanding performance during his tenure with the agency.
Mad cow is a concern to public health because humans can contract a fatal
brain illness known as variant Creutzfeldt Jakob disease from eating beef
products contaminated with the mad cow pathogen.
Friedlander's claims include that a USDA official told him in 1991 not to
say anything if he ever discovered a case of mad cow disease, and that he
knew of cows that had tested positive at private laboratories but were ruled
negative by the USDA.
He said he was interviewed by Keith Arnold, from the OIG's regional office
in Kansas City, Mo., and William Busby, of OIG's Denver office. The
officials told him Phyllis Fong, the USDA's inspector general, ordered the
"The reason they interviewed me was there was a lot of talk about my
comments made in Canada and they said they were getting a lot of flak," he
said. "I told them I'd take a lie detector just to prove I'm telling the
Paul Feeney, OIG's deputy counsel, told UPI the agency had no comment
regarding Friedlander's allegations, but he noted the OIG is conducting an
audit of USDA's surveillance plan for mad cow disease -- also known as
bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE -- which includes collecting
information from "any individuals who may have substantive information about
The USDA did not return a phone call from UPI seeking comment, but agency
officials, including Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, previously have
denied Friedlander's accusations.
Friedlander left the USDA in 1995 after reaching an agreement with the
agency concerning his complaints that his immediate supervisors were
discriminating against him for his religious beliefs. Friedlander insists
the agency attempted to force him out after he appeared on national
television programs alleging that meat from downer cows -- those unable to
stand -- was included in school lunch programs and a drug that is toxic to
people was being used to increase the volume of meat in veal calves.
Among the accusations Friedlander said the OIG's office is investigating is
an incident in 1991 in which he said Pat McCaskey, a USDA pathologist branch
chief, told him not to say anything if he ever found a mad cow case.
Friedlander said the discussion with McCaskey followed a meeting at the
department's headquarters in Washington about economic consequences if the
disease was discovered in a U.S. cow.
A recent study conducted by Kansas State University researchers calculated
the U.S. beef industry already has lost billions of dollars in exports due
to foreign nations closing their borders in response to the mad cow case
detected in Washington state in 2003 -- the first and only confirmed case in
the United States.
"The next day he (McCaskey) called me up at my USDA office and said, 'If you
ever find it, don't tell anybody,'" Friedlander said.
Friedlander also told the inspectors about two cows in 1997 that other USDA
employees initially said looked positive for mad cow disease. He said the
agents told him they were going to interview Masuo Doi and Karl
Langheinrich, the USDA employees involved in those cases.
A two-year UPI investigation found the two cows were extensively tested by
the USDA and the National Institutes of Health and neither agency ever
detected a trace of mad cow.
Friedlander said he began collecting brains from cows with symptoms that
could indicate mad cow disease on his own in 1989, although the official
USDA surveillance program did not start until 1990. He said he told
inspectors it was "highly suspicious when they had an official program to
take brains, they never asked me for one cow brain and they knew I was
taking brains on my own to test for mad cow disease."
At the time, Friedlander worked in a Pennsylvania plant that he said would
have been a good place for mad cow surveillance. The plant received the most
downer cows in the country -- 25 to 30 per day -- and included cows coming
from multiple states ranging as far west as Texas, as far North as Maine and
as far south as Florida, he said.
Friedlander said he sent the brains he collected to the USDA's laboratory in
Athens, Ga., but none came back positive for mad cow. He said he was
transferred from the Pennsylvania plant because he had "the highest" rate of
condemning animals he deemed unsuitable for human consumption. The plant
owner told the USDA he was losing $10,000 to $15,000 per day due to the
condemnations, Friedlander said.
In another incident, Friedlander said Joe Oziano, a veterinarian from
Veterinary Services in Michigan, informed him in 1995 that a cow brain he
sent to be tested for mad cow disease at the USDA's lab in Ames, Iowa, was
thrown away by lab personnel.
Oziano had taken the brain from an old bull during the summer and sent it
for testing on a Friday, Friedlander said. Because it arrived after hours
and nobody was working during the weekend, the unrefrigerated sample
remained on the loading dock in the hot sun all weekend. By the time a lab
employee opened the sample on Monday, he said, it stunk so badly the
employee just threw it away. When Oziano objected, arguing that although the
brain tissue was badly deteriorated, it still should have been tested for
mad cow, the lab technician responded, "Do you think anybody really cares?"
The USDA ramped up its BSE surveillance to more than 300,000 animals in the
wake of the 2003 case and has not detected any more infected animals, but
this strategy also has generated controversy.
In November 2004, a cow tested positive on two initial rapid tests, but it
subsequently was ruled negative by the USDA on a different test. BSE-testing
experts and consumer groups have questioned the agency's rationale for not
using a third type of test -- called a Western blot -- on the cow that may
have helped clear up any confusion about whether the animal was infected.
The USDA plans to scale back its BSE testing program in 2006. Its proposed
mad cow testing budget for fiscal year 2006 would fund testing of only
Steve Mitchell is UPI's Medical Correspondent. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org