WASHINGTON -- The Agriculture Department is planning a 10-fold increase in the number of cattle tested for mad cow disease in response to discovery of the nation's first case of the disease last December.
The department announced plans Monday to test more than 221,000 animals over a 12- to 18-month period beginning in June.
Included would be 201,000 animals considered to be at high risk of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, because they show symptoms of nervous system disorders such as twitching.
Random tests also will be conducted on about 20,000 older animals sent to slaughter even though they appear healthy. Those tests are aimed at sampling cattle old enough to have eaten feed produced before 1997, when the Food and Drug Administration banned the use of cattle tissue in feed for other cattle.
The government last year conducted mad cow tests on tissues from 20,543 animals, virtually all of them cattle that could not stand or walk and had to be dragged to slaughter. After the case in December, the department initially doubled the number of animals to be tested this year to 40,000.
Agriculture Department officials emphasized that the expanded testing regime announced Monday is a one-time deal only. They said they hope to begin it in June and meet the total target over the next 12 to 18 months.
Dr. Ron DeHaven, the Agriculture Department's top veterinarian, said the need for testing in the range of 200,000 animals a year will be re-evaluated once the initial round is completed.
Cattle eating the tissue of a diseased cow is considered the primary way the misshapen protein blamed for BSE is transmitted. For humans, eating meat that contains BSE can cause a similarly rare but fatal illness in people, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman estimated that the new testing will cost $70 million. She said the expanded testing reflects the recommendations of an international scientific review panel she appointed a week after mad cow disease was confirmed in a Washington state Holstein slaughtered on Dec. 9.
"We are committed to ensuring that a robust U.S. surveillance program continues in this country," Veneman said.
Nearly 50 countries imposed bans on American beef after the first U.S. case was confirmed. Poland has lifted its ban and Mexico has relaxed its prohibitions, but major importers like Japan and South Korea have said they will not allow American beef back in until all 35 million cattle slaughtered in the United States each year are tested.
The new U.S. testing plan still does not meet Japanese requirements, said Tadashi Sato, agricultural attache at the Japanese Embassy in Washington.
"We want to see the U.S. government introduce the same system for beef safety, or at least an equivalent system, that we have in Japan. We test all slaughter cattle, regardless of age - not some," he said.
Domestic critics also weren't satisfied. Felicia Nestor, food safety director for the Government Accountability Project, a watchdog group, said the new testing doesn't guarantee that any animals with BSE won't enter the food supply.
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association supported the limited-duration testing program. But it said the new rapid tests that return results within hours instead of weeks have the potential to label animals as BSE-infected when they aren't. The Agriculture Department has said any positive results from the rapid tests will be verified by more exact tests.
Before BSE, exports accounted for about 10 percent of the nation's more than 26 billion pounds of beef produced each year.
The department expects to announce soon a new system of rapid tests that will make the increased surveillance possible. The rapid tests could be done at laboratories around the nation, as well as the department's National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa, currently the only facility that can do testing.
The testing could find one case of BSE in 10 million animals, he said. It would establish whether the United States has more cases of mad cow.
DeHaven has said it's not necessary to test every animal because the department's targeted surveillance program system would pick up one case of BSE in 10 million animals.