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Dangerous cow parts still enter food supply

February 16, 2004 Seattle Times by Sandi Doughton
Even before the nation's first mad-cow case, few Americans chose to dine on cow brains, spinal cords or intestines.

Learning that those parts are most likely to carry the disease only strengthens the aversion.

But despite new rules adopted in December to keep the riskiest tissues out of the food chain, some of the unsavory ingredients can still wind up on the table, hidden behind innocuous labels like "beef flavoring" or as accidental contamination in taco filling or processed meat.

People can get a fatal, human version of the disease by eating tissue from infected animals, though no one knows what dose it takes.

Cows can become infected by eating less than one-thousandth of an ounce of brain tissue from a sick animal, a panel of international experts said in a report to the U.S. Department of Agriculture earlier this month.

Where do cow brains go?

Uses of brain and spinal-cord material:

* Headcheese and some processed meats

* Beef broth

* Beef flavoring and extract

* Animal and pet food

* Nutritional supplements

The panel strongly recommended the United States consider a total ban on brains and other high-risk tissue in human food. At the least, the report said, the government should tighten restrictions significantly, unless an aggressive mad-cow testing program proves the disease hasn't spread in the cattle population.

After the infected Holstein was discovered near Yakima in December, the USDA quickly banned human consumption of the most dangerous parts from cattle 30 months old or older: brains, spinal cords, eyes and backbones. The tonsils and small intestines were banned from animals of any age.

Young cattle exempt

But because only about 15 percent of cattle slaughtered are over 30 months of age, the brains from 30 million animals a year can still go into the human food supply.

Most don't, though, because they're instead made into animal and pet food. But fresh, canned and frozen brains can still be sold in specialty markets and served in restaurants.

Brains can also be used in headcheese and some other processed meat products, as long as they're listed on the label. No label is necessary when brains and spinal cords are cooked along with other ingredients to make beef broth, beef flavoring and beef extracts.

It's also still legal to include brains in nutritional supplements called "glandulars."

The new regulations allow processors to use machines to scrape flesh from the backbone of cattle under 30 months of age. A meat paste results that isn't supposed to contain bits of spinal cord. But sometimes it does. It is used in a variety of products, from taco filling to pizza toppings, hot dogs and some types of sausage and beef jerky.

Up to consumers

The only way consumers can find out if the paste is in the food they're eating is to ask the producer or restaurant chain.

In the United Kingdom, the European Union and Japan, use of the scraping machines isn't allowed. The brains, spinal cords, eyes and intestines from cattle of all ages are considered hazardous waste. England incinerates the material because it isn't even allowed in landfills.

The international panel, convened by Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman to evaluate the nation's mad-cow safeguards, said the U.S. ban should be extended to cattle a year old or older. "A cutoff of 12 months represents a recognition of the fact that some cattle under 30 months of age may be slaughtered with infectivity present," the report says.

The panel also said the high-risk tissues should not be allowed in animal feed, which is blamed for spreading the disease among cattle.

With an incubation period of two to eight years, mad-cow disease is almost exclusively an ailment of older animals. But at least 84 head of cattle 30 months or younger tested positive during Britain's cattle epidemic a decade ago.

Last year, Japanese officials discovered mad-cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, in animals 21 and 23 months old.

'Not the best standard'

"Clearly, the 30-month figure is one that's most convenient for the industry but, in fact, it is not the best public-health standard," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food-safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group. "These things should not be allowed in the food chain."

Members of a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel last week called for a ban on brains in nutritional supplements. Panel member Richard Johnson held up a bottle of capsules called "Body Fortress" that he had bought at a Baltimore health-food store.

"It contains raw brains," said the Johns Hopkins University neurologist. "Anybody want to try it?"

The ingredient was listed on the label, along with other assorted cow organs, but in print so small "you need a hand lens to read it," he said.

At the same meeting, USDA veterinarian Lisa Ferguson defended the 30-month ban, saying it eliminates the vast majority of potentially infectious tissues from the food chain. Even if younger animals were infected, the levels of mad-cow agent in their tissues would be so low, there's little chance a person could get sick from eating them, she said.

Even in Britain, where hundreds of thousands of cattle were infected, only about 140 people have contracted the human form of the disease, said Gary Weber of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

Weber is confident that expanded mad-cow tests will confirm the level of infection in cattle is so minimal that a stricter ban, comparable with those in Europe, won't be necessary.

Compromise for now

The international panel agreed the 30-month ban "is a reasonable, temporary compromise," while the U.S. changes its testing program.

The 30-month cutoff is based largely on experiments in England, where cows were fed infected brain tissue from other cattle, then killed at different intervals. Tissues were checked for infection, then injected into mice to see if they could transmit the disease.

Those studies showed the disease agent could reach infectious levels in the tonsils and a portion of the small intestine within six to 10 months of exposure, long before the animal tested positive for mad-cow or showed symptoms. That's why the USDA decided to keep those organs out of the human-food supply, regardless of age.

In general, though, other tissues didn't become dangerous until the animals were in the end stages of the disease: 32 months or more after exposure.

None of the experiments found any danger in milk or the muscle meat that makes up the cuts of beef people eat.

Consumer advocates say they worry most about the meat-scraping machinery used on younger cattle, because of its potential to contaminate meat with bits of spinal cord. When USDA inspectors conducted tests at processing plants in 2002, they found contamination in more than one-third of samples and at more than 75 percent of the facilities.

Enforcement pays off

Since then, the agency has instituted a sampling and enforcement program that has significantly reduced the problem, said spokesman Steven Cohen. Tests in 2003 found spinal cord in less than 7 percent of samples tested.

Federal officials say the 30-month ban represents an abundance of caution, because only a single sick animal - which contracted the disease in Canada - has been found in the United States. They cite a Harvard University analysis that concludes mad-cow disease is highly unlikely to spread in the U.S. the way it did in Europe.

However, that study also concluded a stricter human-food ban would make the slight risk of human exposure here even slighter - lowering it by 95 percent.

And in the Feb. 5 New England Journal of Medicine, British mad-cow expert Christl Donnelly said the government can do more to protect the public, though the odds anyone will contract the disease are low.

"Consumers should press authorities to test more cattle, to strengthen the regulations on feed production and to extend the ban on brain and spinal cord in food for human consumption to include cattle younger than 30 months," she wrote.

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com

   
         

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