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Hearing of the Agriculture Committee on the US Agriculture Department's Response to Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy / Mad Cow Disease - Transcript

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Location: Washington, DC


HEADLINE: HEARING OF THE HOUSE AGRICULTURE COMMITTEE

SUBJECT: THE U.S. AGRICULTURE DEPARTMENT'S RESPONSE TO BOVINE SPONGIFORM ENCEPHALOPATHY/MAD COW DISEASE

CHAIRED BY: REPRESENTATIVE BOB GOODLATTE (R-VA)

LOCATION: 1300 LONGWORTH HOUSE OFFICE BUILDING, WASHINGTON, D.C.

WITNESSES: SECRETARY OF AGRICULTURE ANN VENEMAN; WILLIAM T. HAWKS, UNDERSECRETARY, MARKETING AND REGULATORY PROGRAMS, USDA; ELSA A. MURANO, UNDERSECRETARY, FOOD SAFETY, USDA

BODY:

REP. GOODLATTE: (Strikes gavel.) Good afternoon. This hearing of the House Committee on Agriculture to review the U.S. Department of Agriculture's bovine spongiform encephalopathy response will come to order.

I'd like to thank the secretary for coming to the committee today for a hearing to review the department's response to the finding of a BSE-positive cow in the United States, which was announced less than a month ago. The committee appreciates that it has been an incredibly busy time and that there is still considerable work to be done. Please know that we value your hard work and the time you have taken to be here today.

The recent finding of the Canadian-born BSE-positive cow in Washington state has reinvigorated debate about a number of subjects, some of which are related to this issue and some of which are not. The committee will have a full schedule this year addressing many of these policy discussions. Following this hearing, the committee will be traveling to the world's largest livestock show, the International Livestock Congress in Houston, Texas, to hold a field hearing on animal identification on March 5th. Other topics will be dealt with in due course.

For this reason, I encourage my colleagues to focus on oversight of the department's response to date and resist the urge to have far- ranging discussions on every livestock-related subject imaginable.

Given the news we all received on December 23rd and the concerns we all faced that day, I believe most analysts would be relatively pleased with where we are now, less than a month down the road. While cattle prices have declined in the range of 16 to 18 percent, they have been remarkably stable since immediately after the announcement. The press has been largely responsible in its coverage of events, and all evidence indicates that consumer confidence in the safety of our beef supply has remained strong.

The market seems to have priced in the temporary loss of our beef exports, and I interpret the current stability as a vote of confidence that commercial interests, working in hand (sic) with government, will restore normalcy to this trade in a timely manner. While exports represent an important 10 percent of the United States beef market, I would encourage all involved to keep the remaining 90 percent in mind as they consider solutions for reopening markets. A cure that is worse than the disease is no cure at all.

The Department of Agriculture was swift in responding to the finding of this single cow in our nation's herd. The public had been kept informed of events at every step, which is vital to maintaining consumer confidence. The secretary has clearly made it a priority to keep the communications channels open about the facts of this case and her actions in response.

However, I have questions about one element of the secretary's announcement made on December 30th. For some time, well-intentioned members of Congress have sought to bar the movement of non-ambulatory cattle, so-called downers, in livestock commerce.

As a result of ongoing consultations with the Department of Agriculture, we have resisted these efforts. This was a hotly debated topic in the conference discussions in the 2002 Farm Bill. USDA officials and White House representatives were present and contributed to staff discussions that led to the compromise language addressing nonambulatory livestock, which was subsequently signed by the President.

Our reason for rejecting the notion of simply barring nonambulatory livestock from commerce was not an indifference to sound animal stewardship principles. We all agree with and support animal welfare practices. Not only is it the law, it's the right thing to do.

Our reason for resisting these initiatives was that the policy of simply excluding these animals from commerce was incomplete. It failed to address important questions about what happens to these animals when they do not move forward in the food production system and how the vital task of animal disease surveillance would be conducted if the animals did not find their way to government inspectors. Our concern remains, as the secretary's announcement also failed to answer these questions.

The examination, diagnosis, and inspection of downed livestock by licensed veterinarians are a fundamental component of our nation's animal health infrastructure in our efforts to detect diseases such as BSE, tuberculosis, and brucellosis. Prior to the secretary's December 30th announcement, nonambulatory animals were the principle target of our BSE surveillance and testing regime. The fact is that if the secretary's current policy had been in place previously, we would not even have found this BSE-infected cow.

In addition to a general review of where we stand and where were are going since the months of-since the events of last month, I will be listening closely today about the department's plan for monitoring nonambulatory animals that can no longer enter the food chain. What scientific evidence was used to arrive at this decision? How many animals are we talking about? How will this segment of the herd be monitored in the future? How does this improve animal health and public safety? What is the administration's position on expanding this policy to other species? The answers to these and other questions will help shape the policy process in the coming months.

Again, I thank the secretary for her participation today. I look forward to her testimony. And at this time it is my pleasure to recognize the gentleman from Texas, the ranking member, Mr. Stenholm.

REPRESENTATIVE CHARLES W. STENHOLM (D-TX): Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thank you for holding this very timely and important hearing. One of the main functions of our committee is to provide oversight of USDA activities, and I appreciate the seriousness with which you have approached that task, as evidenced by today's hearing. Let me also take this opportunity to thank the secretary for being present to today. I am sure this has been a very busy month, Madame Secretary, and I appreciate the time commitment you made by appearing today.

Given last month's discovery of a BSE-positive cow within our borders, a cow that had been imported from Canada, this is obviously a very important hearing. There have been a number of significant actions and regulatory responses by USDA over the past several weeks.

Some of these actions are common sense and have spurred many to ask why they weren't implemented in the first place. One such example would be establishing a new test-and-hold requirement for sampled animals.

In any case, I want to commend USDA for taking these actions, and to say that I am deeply appreciative of the work done by so many hundreds of USDA staff over the Christmas holiday season. Generating a timely response to this incident required a great deal of sacrifice by a large number of USDA employees, and I want them to know that many in Congress are grateful to them. Despite the good work of many USDA employees on the ground, however, there are a number of questions about USDA's response to this situation that I hope will be answered today.

The first relates to the place of "sound science" in USDA's policy response. The chairman mentioned this. Let me emphasize that I am deeply committed to the principle that we should use the best available science to drive all government regulatory policy. Private companies may make decisions that are unsound scientifically in order to market products or meet special consumer interests, and that is their prerogative. The USDA, as a governmental entity, on the other hand, must make objective decisions based on sound science and sound science alone. That is the only safe and sure road for us to follow where regulations are concerned.

Let me also say that I respect the right of some of my colleagues to interject humane/animal rights issues into the discussion of our food processing industry. We should recognize these issues for what they are, however, and not confuse them with the sound science policies that make our food safer.

Second, I am concerned about the efficacy of the new surveillance program for BSE. Let me be clear, I am not questioning the safety of our food supply. The chance of BSE-infected tissue getting into our food supply is minuscule. I am, however, concerned about the ability of our government to provide credible statistical evidence of the fact that our home-grown beef herd remains free of BSE. Recent actions by USDA that limit access to high-risk animals, and questions about past testing schemes, are a significant concern in that regard.

On the trade front, we also have two major concerns. First, and most importantly, how do we reassure our customers around the world that our beef products remain safe? In my humble opinion, we do so by maintaining science-based rules and explaining why we think those science-based rules ensure a safe meat supply.

A second trade concern is how we treat countries that are exporting beef to the United States. On January the 7th, FSIS sent letters to each of the 10 countries that export beef to the United States under FSIS import authority. The countries are Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, New Zealand and Uruguay. The letters informed these countries of the downer ban and of the intention of FSIS to issue regulations on removal and segregation of specified risk materials, advanced meat recovery, and captive bolt stunning. The letters also state that the exporting countries will have to adopt these or equivalent measures for beef products exported to the United States.

These new processing requirements will, of course, be subject to WTO rules mandating that such requirements be science-based. And I will be interested to hear the secretary's comments on how the rules will be implemented in a manner consistent with our WTO obligations.

Many reports indicate that consumer confidence in our food safety remains high. When all is said and done on the BSE issue, consumers understand that our U.S. herd is BSE-free. We need to ensure that actions taken by USDA will enhance our food safety systems and not merely address perceptions. Failure to do so could come back to haunt us in two ways. On the trade front, perceptions might cause other countries to impose non-science-based requirements; and on the home front, consumers could become disillusioned with our food safety systems if we institute measures that don't actually enhance food safety.

These issues and others will need to be reviewed in similar hearings over the coming months. Today, at the beginning of the new session, we are making a good start. And I look forward to an open and frank discussion. I also look forward to working with the administration to craft a sound, defensible BSE response as we move into the future.

REP. GOODLATTE: I thank the gentleman. In order to get to the secretary's testimony and to afford the members full opportunity to ask questions, we are going to make all other opening statements a part of the record, or as a part of your five minutes you can certainly use part of that material.

And at this time we'd like to welcome Secretary Veneman. Madame Secretary, you contacted me about this first on Christmas Eve. And I think that's been the hallmark of your approach to this. You also then directly spoke to the American people, and I think you've done an outstanding job in assuring the public that our food supply in this country is very safe-I would argue, the safest in the world. And I commend you very much for that. And we welcome you here today.

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REP. GOODLATTE: Thank you, Secretary Veneman, and thank you for that very comprehensive statement, which very clearly outlined the enormous effort that you and your good people at the department have put into this issue in the last month. I commend you for that.

Let me go right away, since time is short for each of us, to the area that I have expressed concern to you about with regard to non- ambulatory cattle, or so-called "downers". What is the legal definition of "non-ambulatory cattle" that will be used in enforcing the new policy of excluding non-ambulatory cattle that you announced on December 30th?

SEC. VENEMAN: I don't have the definition in front of me, but I can tell you that it is the definition that we had previously used in the Food Safety Inspection Service directives and guidelines. We did not alter this definition, but wanted something that was known to the plants and interested parties to be the current definition. And so, the definition that we put in our regulation, our interim final rule, mirrors that.

Basically, it defines "non-ambulatory disabled livestock" as those that cannot rise from a recumbent position, or that cannot walk, including, but not limited to, those with broken appendages, severe tendons or ligaments, nerve paralysis, fractured vertibral column, or metabolic conditions.

REP. GOODLATTE: And how many such animals were tested for BSE in 2003?

SEC. VENEMAN: I can get you the specific numbers. I don't have-I don't have the exact numbers. I can tell you that-oh, I'm given a number of about 16,500. I can tell that we are dealing with a universe here of about 35 million cattle that are slaughtered in the United States. Of that, about 150 to 200 thousand, it's estimated, were presented at slaughter as these non-ambulatory or downer animals. This is less than 1 percent. It is a relative small number. And we also have a number of what we call animals that are called deads or dyings, but don't go into the food chain, of about an additional 400,000. So we're basically putting the downers from the category of the 35 million in the category of the 400,000.

REP. GOODLATTE: So 16,000 were tested in 2003. How many will be tested in 2004?

SEC. VENEMAN: Of what animals?

REP. GOODLATTE: Of non-ambulatory cattle.

SEC. VENEMAN: Well, in 2004 we are looking at the various at- risk populations, whether they be-probably the most at risk would be the deads and dying animals that are presented at rendering plants.

And we do have agreements with some rendering plants, and like plants, to test animals there. We will expand those kinds of agreements.

We are looking at information on various additional ways-looking at older cattle that may be presented at the slaughter. Those, obviously, with central nervous system disorders are at the highest risk. Those are the ones we want to target for testing.

But overall, we will be using the-the international team that will be coming to the United States beginning this week to review our investigation and our actions, we will be using that team to make recommended actions on our overall surveillance process. I am told that we will be testing-we are increasing our testing to about 40,000 total animals. Of those, it is estimated that probably about 35,000 will be nonambulatory animals.

REP. GOODLATTE: Now, according to estimates-and they seem to be widely varying-the number of nonambulatory cattle in the country range from 150,000 to 1.4 million. According to these widely varying estimates of the number, somewhere between 8,600 and 80,000 of these animals should have occurred in the first 21 days of this year.

Do you know how many nonambulatory cattle have been turned away from the food processing system as a result of your change in policy thus far?

SEC. VENEMAN: Mr. Chairman, I don't. I've never heard the million animal number. The number of animals that-were estimates-the estimates that were given to me in terms of the number of downer animals possibly within the system were between 150,000 and 200,000. Those are the numbers upon which we made our decisions.

REP. GOODLATTE: Let me get to my point. How many of these nonambulatory cattle that have been turned away have been tested for BSE?

SEC. VENEMAN: I am unsure at this point.

REP. GOODLATTE: And based on historical trends, how many nonambulatory cattle are no longer moving forward to slaughter facilities as a result of the policy change?

SEC. VENEMAN: Well, again, the estimates are the best numbers I can give you, is that we estimated that-or the estimates that we had been given were somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 head annually, out of 35 million heads slaughtered. Again, this is a very, very minuscule part of the overall amount that are slaughtered every year. There have been --

REP. GOODLATTE: Well, let me interrupt for just a --

SEC. VENEMAN: Let me just say, apparently-I've just been handed a note. There have been so far tested this year, as of the 15th of January, 6,744 downers tested.

REP. GOODLATTE: Well, I continue to-we'll come back to this issue. My time has expired, and that's the only reason I was interrupting. But I continue to be concerned that we have a gap in the system if we do not deliver downer cattle to the facilities where the veterinarians are located that can spot them and inspect them.

At this time I recognize the gentleman from Texas, Mr. Stenholm.

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REP. GOODLATTE: I thank the gentleman.

The gentleman from Ohio, Mr. Boehner.

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REP. GOODLATTE: I thank the gentleman.

The gentleman from Minnesota, Mr. Peterson.

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REP. GOODLATTE: I thank the gentleman, and I would remind all of the members of the committee that we are going to hold a hearing solely dedicated to that subject in Houston on March 5th. We hope you will make efforts to plan to attend that very important hearing.

And now I would like to recognize the gentleman from Oklahoma, Mr. Lucas.

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REP. GOODLATTE: I thank the gentleman for his attempt.

REP. : (Off mike.) (Laughter.)

REP. GOODLATTE: The gentleman from California, Mr. Dooley.

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REP. GOODLATTE: I thank the gentleman.

The gentleman from Kansas, Mr. Moran.

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REP. GOODLATTE: The time of the gentleman has expired. The gentleman from North Carolina, Mr. Etheridge.

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REP. GOODLATTE: Thank you. The gentleman from Minnesota, Mr. Gutknecht.

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REP. GOODLATTE: I thank the gentleman. The gentleman from Hawaii, Mr. Case.

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REP. GOODLATTE: I thank the gentleman.

The gentleman from North Carolina, Mr. Hayes.

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REP. GOODLATTE: I thank the gentleman.

The gentleman from Washington, Mr. Larsen.

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REP. GOODLATTE: Very quickly.

REP. LARSEN: It has to do with establishing the testing capacity and testing network we talked about earlier, the existing network, lab network that we have that was developed from 9-11. What thought have you put into using that existing network while we also expanded Ames.

SEC. VENEMAN: Well, as you say Ames has been the laboratory where we have done most of our BSE testing, as we increase the number of tests, obviously, we will be looking at other laboratories, primarily for things like-these tests would probably be the state and federal network that we work with.

REP. LARSEN: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

REP. GOODLATTE: I thank the gentleman. The gentleman from Nebraska, Mr. Osborne.

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REP. GOODLATTE: I thank the gentleman. The gentleman from Tennessee, Mr. Davis.

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REP. GOODLATTE: I thank the gentleman. The gentleman from Texas, Mr. Neugebauer.

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REP. GOODLATTE: Very fast.

REP. NEUGEBAUER: There's some literature out there-and obviously it's been a lot of stuff-it's kind of I think I'd call it scare literature, where people are trying to tie together other neurological diseases in humans to the BSE, for example Alzheimer's. Are you aware of any good science that correlates those two together?

SEC. VENEMAN: I've never seen any scientific studies that made that correlation, whatsoever. And I think that-you know, people like to speculate, people that don't have scientific backgrounds. What we need to do is make sure that we are looking at good, sound scientific studies when we look at these kinds of issues, and I've never seen a study-I don't believe that there's been any studies that would make that correlation.

I just would add, with regard to the previous question, the other thing that we began in our department, that I think is very important, is we began-and we are doing it with Texas A&M, so it's as one of our partners, is to begin to sequence the bovine genome. And that's going to be very important in terms of our research overall on animal diseases and how we can ultimately treat them and test for them and so forth.

REP. NEUGEBAUER: Thank you, Madame Secretary.

REP. GOODLATTE: I thank the gentleman. The gentleman from North Dakota, Mr. Pomeroy.

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REP. GOODLATTE: Very quickly.

REP. POMEROY: Yeah, I'm not submitting a question. I do think that this all calls for moving forward on country-of-origin labeling, not forestalling it or kicking it out into the future.

And so I hope that the Department of Agriculture will continue to consider market preference, in my opinion, consumers' strong preference to knowing country of origin labeling, especially relative to U.S.-produced beef, in light of this incident. And I'd like you to reflect upon that in the months ahead as you do.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

SEC. VENEMAN: Well, if I just might make one comment, because there's been a couple of references now. And I want to make it clear that this was passed as part of the farm bill, and that the department has not missed a single deadline in terms of implementation of this legislation on schedule.

And in fact, I've heard many people call for country-of-origin labeling to immediately begin. And we did, in accordance with the law, put into place the voluntary country-of-origin labeling regulations, which are available to anyone who wants to utilize them to do exactly what you're talking about. So I think that-and we've continued to implement the mandatory on schedule.

Now, I know there's been a considerable amount of debate. There's been a considerable split in the ag industry with some of the major agriculture groups wanting the Congress to reconsider and have more time for reconsideration. But I can assure you that the department has stayed on schedule, not knowing how Congress is going to act on this.

REP. GOODLATTE: The time of the gentleman has expired.

And this would be an appropriate time to make a part of the record the secretary's letter yesterday to Senator Enzi indicating your support for the provision in the omnibus bill that we do delay the implementation for two years so we can write a country-of-origin labeling law that would work well for American farmers.

At this time, I would like to recognize the gentleman from Iowa, Mr. King.

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REP. GOODLATTE: I thank the gentleman. The gentleman from Arkansas, Mr. Ross.

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REP. GOODLATTE: I thank the gentleman.

And now, the most patient member of the committee, the gentleman from Georgia, Mr. Scott.

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REP. GOODLATTE: I thank the gentleman. I believe the gentleman from Texas has one additional question he'd like to raise, Madame Secretary.

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REP. GOODLATTE: I thank the gentleman for his question.

Let me close by thanking you, Secretary Veneman, for taking the time to participate in today's hearing. I know you have been extraordinarily busy in the last month. But I also know that the excellent way in which you answered so many diverse questions from so many members in the past two hours and 20-some minutes shows that you have spent an extraordinary amount of time on this issue, and we thank you for that.

I believe the record will show the department has been swift to respond to the situation, has done an excellent job of keeping the public informed of developments in the last month. Markets are stable, and consumer confidence in the beef supply remains high. Of course, we are hopeful that our foreign markets are reopened in a timely and reasonable fashion.

At the same time, it's clear that many questions remain about how the vital role of BSE surveillance will be fulfilled in the wake of the secretary's decision to exclude non-ambulatory cattle from the food supply. Many members of this committee and, indeed, the House have been approached-and indeed the House have already approached me about calls they're receiving from constituents regarding the disruption and confusion associated with this policy.

So I would encourage the secretary to keep in close contact with us as she seeks to sort these problems out. Frankly, I believe there are many challenges ahead as she wrestles with these issues.

Let me finish by reassuring the secretary that we intend to be attentive to this matter every step of the way.

I thank you again for your participation.

I have some magic words to close out our hearing. Without objection, the record of today's hearing will remain open for 10 days to receive additional material and supplementary written responses from witnesses to any question posed by a member of the secretary. This hearing of the House Committee on Agriculture is adjourned.

END

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