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USDA mulling new mad cow restrictions on beef

January 20, 2002 The Bismarck Tribune by Philip Brasher

WASHINGTON -- The government is considering new prevention measures for mad cow disease that include banning the sale of brains and certain types of beef from cattle considered at risk for getting the illness. Cow brains are considered a delicacy with some ethnic groups.

The Agriculture Department has told the beef industry it also may require cattle producers to certify that their livestock weren't given feed that contains meat and brain meal, products that are banned from cattle feed because of their potential to spread the disease.

In addition, producers could be required to destroy or bury sick, injured or dead cattle on the farm. Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, never has been found in the United States, but it is linked to a human-brain wasting illness, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, that has killed about 100 people in Europe. BSE appeared last year in Japan. The disease is believed to be caused by a deformed protein and spread through eating brain or nerve tissue from infected animals.

'The experience in Europe and the emerging experience in Asia indicates that this is a disease that has the capability of spreading and has spread,' said Margaret Glavin, acting administrator of USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Beef industry officials say many of the restrictions being considered aren't necessary until a case of mad-cow disease appears in the country.

The packing industry's profit margins are so small that processors attempt to sell every bit of meat and every part of a cow, including the fat, blood, and even the intestinal contents.

'These are precautionary options in the unlikely event that BSE were to occur in the United States, but we have no evidence that it is likely to occur,' said James Hodges, president of the American Meat Institute Foundation, which represents processors.

A Harvard University study last year said it was 'extremely unlikely' that mad cow disease could ever take hold in U.S. herds, mainly because of the ban on feeding them meat and bone meal. However, the researchers said there were additional steps that would significantly reduce the risk to cattle and human health even more, including new restrictions on animal feed and meat processing.

The measures USDA is considering include prohibiting or restricting the sale of brains or meat taken from the cheeks of cattle that are older than 2 years, or from cattle that can't walk -- injured or sick animals known as 'downers.' Processors also could be banned from using high-pressure equipment, known as 'advanced meat recovery' systems, to remove meat from the spinal columns of downers or old cattle.

Most cattle are slaughtered younger than 2, but about 15 percent are old dairy and breeding cows that are used for ground beef.

USDA is concerned that meat taken from the head or near the spine could carry the disease, according to an 18-page paper outlining the prevention measures.

The department also may ban the sale of intestines, which are used for sausage casings, from cattle of any age.

'USDA is recognizing apparently for the first time its role in protecting consumers from potential exposure to BSE in the food supply,' said Caroline Smith DeWaal of the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Her group had petitioned the agency to ban all use of spinal columns, regardless of the animal's age, in advanced meat recovery systems.

USDA said it will use a mathematical model developed by Harvard to assess the cost and benefits of each prevention measure it is considering.

The Harvard study said there was an 18 percent chance that BSE was introduced into the country before imports of British cattle were banned in 1989.

But the researchers said it was unlikely that those cattle could spread the disease, and the chances were even more remote that a human was exposed.

USDA announced recently that it would double the number of cattle being tested for BSE and ban the use of a certain type of stun gun that is used to knock cattle unconscious before slaughter.

Those devices, which are now in rare use, can knock brain matter from the skull into other parts of the cow.

(On the Net: Food Safety and Inspection Service's BSE site: www.fsis.usda.gov/oa/topics/bse.htm; American Meat Institute: www.meatami.org; Center for Science in the Public Interest: www.cspinet.org.)


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