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'Mad-cow disease.' Where do we go from here? 2001

May 1, 2001 Consumer Reports

"Mad-cow disease" has made worldwide headlines in recent months, as more than a dozen countries have reported cases of this brain-wasting disease in cattle, which has been linked to a fatal disease in people. No cases of mad-cow disease or its human variant have been reported in the U.S. or Canada. But the news abroad raises a question: Are our safeguards sufficient to prevent similar problems?

The short answer is that U.S. meat seems safe. However, Consumers Union believes the federal government should take added steps to end practices that could undermine the safety of meat. Our Consumer Policy Institute has been fighting for such changes for years.

Mad-cow disease is one of several similar fatal brain diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, or TSEs. The name is based on their main effect: The infected brain eventually becomes riddled with spongelike holes. In people, the disease is called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or CJD; in cows, it's called mad-cow disease; in sheep, it's scrapie; and in deer and elk, chronic wasting disease. All are believed to be caused by a mutant protein that can apparently induce normal proteins to mimic its shape. Evidence suggests that the disease can jump from species to species when a diseased animal is eaten.

To date, 91 people in three European countries have contracted a strain of CJD that is presumed to have come from eating infected beef. At least 80 people in Britain and 2 in France have died. It is not yet known whether eating meat from infected sheep, deer, or elk has caused anyone to contract CJD.

In the wake of the outbreaks abroad, U.S. officials have already taken some action. Since 1989, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has banned imports of live cattle and sheep from countries where mad-cow disease has been reported. In 1997, the Food and Drug Administration banned the feeding of certain meal made from cud-chewing animals to other cud-chewing animals, including cows and sheep. And in 1999, the FDA prohibited blood donations from anyone who had spent six months or more in the United Kingdom from 1980 to 1996. In the most recent ban, in December, the USDA prohibited all imports from Europe of rendered animal-protein products, regardless of species.

But Consumers Union believes there's more to do. Specifically, the U.S. must:

* Ban the feeding of animal remains to food animals. Britain has adopted such a ban. But under the FDA's current rule, cattle remains can still be fed to other animals, such as pigs, whose remains can then be fed back to cows. Purina Mills has taken steps toward a complete ban by no longer using cattle remains in feed given to any food animal.

* Prohibit feeding the remains of TSE-infected animals to any animal. It is legal today for a herd of scrapie-infected sheep, or deer and elk with chronic wasting disease, to be used as feed for hogs and poultry. Their remains can also be used for pet food.

Require feed mills to keep records longer. Because of the long incubation period of mad-cow disease, the FDA should require feed mills to keep records for longer than the current one-year period so that contaminated feed could be better traced. And the FDA should do a better job of enforcing existing rules. Although the agency requires feed mills to label products containing cattle remains so they won't be fed to cows, the rule is widely ignored.

Screen more animals for the disease. Last year, officials tested only 2,717 cows believed to be at risk for mad-cow disease - that's out of a U.S. cattle population of 100 million. Consumers Union believes that the test sample was too small to adequately detect a problem here.


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