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Mad Cow Disease

The first case of mad cow disease in the United States has prompted government officials to reassure the public that the nation's food supply is safe, but critics say more needs to be done to protect Americans' health.

On December 23, U.S. officials diagnosed the country's only known case of mad cow disease, technically known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), in a dairy cow in Washington State.

"Despite this finding, we remain confident in the safety of our beef supply," Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman said. "The risk to human health from BSE is extremely low."

Mad cow investigators said early on they believed the stricken 6 1/2 -year-old Holstein cow came from Canada, but tests were needed. Confirmation came in early January. Officials are trying to round up the rest of the 82-strong herd that crossed the border over two years ago.

Mad cow disease is a fatal, brain-wasting disorder in cattle, which is caused by abnormal proteins called prions that bore holes in the brain. It's thought that cattle contract the disease by eating the ground up remains of BSE-infected animals. In 1997, the U.S. banned the use of most mammalian protein in cattle feed.

BSE Update

1/26/04 — The Food and Drug Administration bans meat from "downer" cattle—animals too sick to walk—from canned soups, pizzas, dietary supplements and cosmetics. Two new interim rules also include a new measure that bans cattle blood from being fed to other cattle. Restaurant scraps will also be prohibited from being rendered into animal feed. The FDA will also set up inspections of rendering facilities and feed mills. Every facility in the States will be inspected annually.

Fear Hits Cattle Ranchers

Some 153 people around the globe have contracted the fatal human version of mad cow disease, known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD). Scientists believe that people get the disease by eating infected beef products, though a case of probable transmission through a blood transfusion has been reported. The incubation period for vCJD is long—15 years on average.

After the Washington State discovery, which left the meat industry reeling (some 40 countries halted US beef imports) and consumers uncertain that their beef was safe, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) unveiled new rules to protect against mad cow disease.

Among the reforms, USDA will no longer allow cattle that cannot walk due to illness or injury, known as "downers", to be slaughtered for human consumption.

In addition, carcasses that have been marked for testing will be set-aside until the process is complete. Currently, cattle are butchered and sent to market before the results come back negative for BSE. That was the case with the infected Washington State animal and USDA had to recall more than 10,000 pounds of beef from about 20 cows that had been slaughtered along with it. The meat went to stores mainly in Washington and Oregon, but also California, Idaho, Montana and Nevada.

In Insidious Problem

Skulls, brain, eyes, vertebral column and spinal cord in cows over 30 months of age and small intestine in all cattle will be banned from the food supply. These are the parts of the animal that may harbor the agents that cause mad cow disease.

Air injection guns used to stun cattle before slaughter will be prohibited because the force of the blow can send brain tissue scattering through the blood stream. And Advanced Meat Recovery (AMR) Systems, machines that squeeze meat and soft tissue off the neck bone and spinal column, are no longer allowed to retrieve the central nervous system tissue connected to the spinal cord—called dorsal root ganglia—for food.

"While we are confident that the United States has safeguards and firewalls needed to protect public health, these additional actions will further strengthen our protection systems," Agriculture Secretary Veneman said.

Critics say the USDA measures fall short.

More Can Be Done

Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat from California, has written Veneman asking her to immediately begin testing all cattle entering the food supply for mad cow disease. Right now, the U.S. tests one of every 1,700 cows slaughtered. By contrast, every cow destined for human consumption in Japan is tested and in Europe about 200,000 animals are tested each day.

"Now is the time to act to put into place the best practices in the world in order to ensure that our food supply will not be tainted by meat from infected cows," Boxer said in a letter to Veneman dated January 8. "I ask that this be done for at least six months or until a thorough analysis is made of the extent of the Mad Cow problem we are facing."

Boxer welcomed legislative proposals on Capitol Hill, including one by fellow California Democrat George Miller to test all cattle, but said bills sometimes take a very long time to pass and the Agriculture Secretary could move to strengthen the test system without waiting for the law to change.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, Food Safety Director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, expressed concern that the ban on parts only applied to cows 30 months or older, despite the fact that several cattle found to harbor the disease were younger than 24-months old. She also said that the announcement about AMR meat didn't go nearly far enough because enforcement was largely dependent on infrequent government testing.

— Leila Corcoran


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