If you saw a guy wandering around Washington, D.C., the night of June 10 with a bag over his head, it likely was USDA Secretary Mike Johanns.
Just the day before, Johanns led a high-profile roundtable session in St. Paul, MN, to tout the confidence and security inherent in the U.S. and Canadian BSE surveillance and firewall programs.
The next afternoon, Johanns was in Ames, IA, touring the National Veterinary Services Lab. That's when news came to him that a Western blot test performed on tissue from an animal USDA cleared of BSE last November using the “gold standard” immunohistochemistry test had retested positive.
The news put Johanns on a plane back to D.C. for an 8 p.m. news conference to report the tissue sample would be dispatched to Weybridge, England, for definitive testing.
Beyond the potential downside of a second U.S. case of BSE, the news that USDA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) had either ordered or requested the retest put folks to wondering just who was in charge? After all, during Creekstone Farms' unsuccessful yearlong quest for USDA's okay to privately BSE test its cattle, the agency steadfastly had protected its singular authority, and repeatedly underscored the quality of its testing protocols.
Now, suddenly the nation learns USDA's authority and its testing protocols seemingly can be superseded by OIG. To add to the mystery, little has been said about exactly why OIG requested — or ordered — the retest on a previously cleared tissue sample.
By Monday, castigations of USDA were flying like bullets at a rappers' convention. The cattle markets took a hit on Monday morning, but recovered some lost ground by the end of the week.
“No matter how quickly or fully the market rebounds, many producers have suffered very real losses that will never be recovered,” Jim McAdams, National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) president, told Johanns in a private June 17 meeting. He said NCBA supports USDA's enhanced surveillance program, but the program “must operate under a consistent and established testing protocol.”
The June 10 news served to dissipate whatever steam was generated by the BSE Symposium just 24 hours earlier. Its purpose was to air disagreements and the science over reopening the U.S. border to Canadian live cattle.
Johanns said he hoped to “bring the industry back together” with the public symposium, and make a convincing argument that Canadian beef is safe and that the U.S. surveillance program works. He did bring the industry together but only to storm the Jamie L. Whitten Federal Building.
And there are likely other repercussions. While attending the BSE Symposium, I had the opportunity to lunch with correspondent Fumi Kobayashi of Tokyo-based Nippon TV, known as “The “NBC of Japan.” I chatted with her and her crew about their take on the sessions.
“My impression is that the U.S. beef industry is very much controlled by four or five big packers and it's all about money and connections to the central government — power and money,” Kobayashi said. “I think most big industries are like that but especially this beef industry, which doesn't open up a lot of information to other countries.”
She termed USDA as “the most difficult people we've ever encountered. It gives us the sense that they're just saying what they want to say and they just sort of look down at Japanese standards.”
The June 10 announcement likely did little to alter that impression.