Search OCA
Get Local!

The U.S. May Face Mad-Cow Exposure Despite Assurances From Government

November 28, 2001 The Wall Street Journal by Steve Stecklow

Like a mantra, federal officials and beef-industry executives are fond of repeating that there never has been a case of mad-cow disease in the United States.

It's the same claim that Germany, Italy, Spain and Japan used to make -- until the disease showed up in their cattle, instantly resulting in plunging beef sales.

Will the U.S. go down the same road?

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Harvard University plan to release a government-funded study that is expected to show that the U.S. has little chance of facing the kind of mad-cow epidemic that befell Britain, where the disease was first diagnosed in cattle 15 years ago.

But a close examination of America's mad-cow safety net shows some possible flaws. New data provided Tuesday by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reveal that scores of shipments of animal byproducts for use in animal feed came into the U.S. in recent years from countries that now have mad-cow disease in their cattle herds, a potentially serious source of contamination. In addition, federal inspections have shown that many U.S. animal-feed mills continue to violate regulations designed to prevent the spread of the disease. And critics say the U.S. isn't spending enough time or money inspecting cattle -- or people -- for signs of the sickness.

Costly Implications

The potential implications for America's already-battered economy are significant: A little-noticed analysis by the FDA in 1997 predicted that if mad-cow disease ever struck cattle in the U.S., the costs would run into the billions of dollars, mostly "to restore consumer confidence in beef and dairy products."

Mad-cow disease is worrisome because it can jump from cows to humans, and the incurable ailment, which perforates the brain with microscopic holes, is always fatal. During the past five years, more than 100 people, nearly all in Britain, have died from variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and at least 27 new cases have been diagnosed in the first 10 months of this year. Meanwhile, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), which strikes cows, has been reported in domestic herds in 18 countries to date. Several other countries have found diseased animals that had been imported from Britain.

Though the origins of BSE remain unclear, scientists are convinced that it spreads among cattle through infected feed containing meat-and-bone meal, a protein supplement made from the ground-up parts of cows. If the animal being processed is infected, then the meal can transmit the disease to many other animals. It takes only one gram of contaminated material to infect a cow.

Britain banned the practice of feeding meat-and-bone meal to cattle in 1988. It later expanded the ban to other farm animals after finding that the material was still contaminating some cattle feed because of sloppy handling by farmers and feed mills. To date, more than 180,000 British cows have contracted the disease, although the number of cases has been steadily declining since 1993.

Missing: 32 Cattle

U.S. officials say the British experience isn't comparable. All but 32 live cattle imported from Britain and Ireland in the 1980s into the U.S. have been traced and destroyed or quarantined. Government officials and many experts also say that, even if a few cases of BSE were to show up in the U.S., there's little chance the disease would spread to many cattle. Harvard University researcher George Gray, who entered numerous possible scenarios into a computer model as part of the new study with the USDA, says, "Almost no matter what we do, it doesn't blow up in the U.S."

But even Dr. Gray doesn't rule out the possibility of some cases cropping up. For one thing, the U.S. didn't ban most mammal-based animal protein, including meat-and-bone meal, in cattle rations until 1997. And, unlike in Europe, it continues to allow it in feed for other farm animals, including pigs and chickens, leaving a risk of cross-contamination into cattle feed.

Another concern in the U.S. is imports. Last December, the USDA banned all imports of rendered animal proteins from 31 countries that either had BSE or presented "an undue risk of introducing BSE into the United States."

In response to a request from this newspaper, the FDA recently tracked how much animal protein came into the U.S. from those 31 countries between 1998 and last December. The records, gleaned from U.S. Customs data, showed at least 72 shipments, including mammal-based bone meal, dried meat scraps, animal waste and blood. The countries included Britain as well as places such as France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Japan, where mad-cow cases are on the rise. The weight of the shipments wasn't available.

In addition, the FDA said that 30 shipments of animal byproducts had arrived in the U.S. after the ban took effect. The agency has been able to track 11 of those shipments, but the whereabouts of the other 19 isn't clear. The agency said it is investigating.

FDA officials said in interviews that they believe most of the animal protein imported from the 31 countries ended up in pet food. But the records provided by the agency don't indicate the material's intended use.

It's also unclear how much animal protein, including possibly meat-and-bone meal, has been imported into the U.S. in recent years from non-European countries which haven't yet detected mad-cow disease but could in the future. Other than Japan, "if an Asian country wants to export meat-and-bone meal into the U.S. there would not be any restrictions," says Stephen F. Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine. He notes, however, that once inside the U.S., the material would be subject to the cattle-feed ban.

'Chicken Litter' Risk

Another potential problem, say FDA officials, is "chicken litter," the mixture of excrement, excess feed and feathers that ends up on the floor of chicken houses. Although the beef and feed industry doesn't like to publicize it, the material remains permissible as an ingredient in cattle feed, although the practice of using it isn't believed to be widespread. "It's mostly an on-the-farm practice," says Richard Sellers, vice president for feed control and nutrition at the American Feed Industry Association. Since chicken feed can contain bovine meat-and-bone meal, the litter represents a potential source of contamination, the FDA believes. "In litter, there is feed that's spilled and gets mixed in," says the FDA's Dr. Sundlof. He says the agency is considering banning its use in cattle feed.

The FDA also is considering banning the use of so-called "plate waste" in cattle feed, Dr. Sundlof says. The 1997 mammalian-protein ban exempted left-over restaurant food, which can be processed and fed to cows, although it's mostly fed to pigs. Hotel-casinos and theme parks in places such as Atlantic City, N.J., and Orlando have been the main providers. But the FDA believes such waste could contain bits of cow brain or other potentially infected cow parts that, unlike in Europe, are still allowed to be consumed in the U.S.

However, plate-waste proponents argue that banning the stuff in cattle feed is illogical. Asks Michael Malecha, a food-industry consultant in Madison, Wis., "Here we have a product that's USDA-inspected, that's suitable to be served to humans, and yet we're saying, don't feed it to animals?"

Recent evidence also raises questions about the effectiveness -- and enforcement -- of the 1997 cattle-feed ban itself.

When the FDA published the regulation detailing the ban, it stated that "the vigorous implementation of this rule will very nearly eliminate the risk of the widespread proliferation of BSE in the United States." But FDA officials concede today they don't even know how many feed mills operate in the U.S. Many are small and don't require federal licenses. In addition, when the ban was implemented, no money was authorized to verify feed mills were complying. As a result, agency officials say, planned inspections soon fell behind schedule.

Disappointing Inspections

Officials say they've since caught up, but the results so far are disappointing: Inspections of 2,653 feed mills that handle meat-and-bone meal found that more than a fifth weren't taking adequate precautions to ensure the material wasn't ending up in cattle feed. And even after many reinspections, as of late last month about 13% of the mills remained out of compliance.

A review of more than 50 warning letters the FDA sent to feed mills this year shows the type of problems encountered. During a March visit to Farmers Mill & Elevator Co. in Dexter, Ga., which makes cattle and hog feed, an inspector found meat-and-bone meal that was being stored on pallets of cattle feed. He also discovered that corn used to flush out mixing equipment prior to making cattle feed was being bagged for use in hog feed, but without any required warning labels not to use it in cattle feed.

"Of particular concern is that these same violations were pointed out during the previous inspection of this facility on Oct. 21, 1998," states the warning letter, dated March 30, 2001.

Carol Rowland, the mill's office manager, says the company has since stopped using meat-and-bone meal altogether. "I'd rather not handle it," she says.

Most of the violations found during feed-mill inspections center on paperwork. For example, mills were cited for failing to establish written procedures to prevent meat-and-bone meal from mingling with cattle feed, or to label products that contain meal with the warning, "Do not feed to Cattle or Other Ruminants." But the FDA hasn't actually tested any cattle feed to see if it contains any prohibited material.

In contrast, Britain has been conducting such tests since 1996. FDA officials say they intend to test 600 samples of cattle feed next year. "That was what we could afford to do," an agency official explained. Officials say they will increase testing if they find evidence of contamination.

While the FDA is responsible for regulating animal feed, the Agriculture Department is charged with dealing with animal diseases, including BSE. The USDA says it has conducted an "active surveillance program since 1990" to prevent the disease from entering the U.S. and hasn't detected any signs.

Unlike in Europe, the USDA's surveillance program doesn't test apparently healthy animals. The agency says 88% of U.S. cattle are slaughtered at less than 20 months of age, and no BSE has ever been detected in an animal that young. "We want to target where we're most likely to find it, as opposed to shotgunning," says Linda Detwiler, who oversees the USDA's mad-cow surveillance efforts.

The USDA says it's focusing on cows that can't walk, known as downer cows. While a variety of ailments, ranging from muscle tears to neurological disorders, can prevent a cow from standing, it's also a documented symptom of mad-cow disease. The agency estimates there are about 130,000 downer animals in the U.S. each year. This year it has tested more than 4,400, up from 344 in 1998.

But a quirky consequence of the mad-cow scare is that cattle raisers now have a financial incentive to kill and bury downers rather than send them to slaughterhouses, where USDA inspectors are deployed to test for BSE and other health hazards. The market for downers has been drying up. Fast-food chains such as McDonald's Corp. and Burger King Corp. have told slaughterhouses they no longer will accept meat from such animals as a safety precaution. (Mad-cow disease isn't the only concern. Downers tend to carry salmonella and other pathogens from lying in manure.)

Worried that downer cows may be falling off its radar screen, the USDA has begun offering to purchase them for BSE-testing purposes.

The flip side of mad-cow surveillance in the U.S. is the effort to detect the disease in humans. Unlike the repeated claims that the country is at little risk of BSE, government officials say cases of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human version of the illness, appear almost inevitable. That's because millions of Americans lived or travelled to Britain during the 1980s and early 1990s, when BSE was rampant, and may have been exposed by consuming infected meat. Hong Kong, for example, recently reported a vCJD case of a woman who had spent years living in Britain.

"I would not be surprised if there is a vCJD case in the U.S.," says the FDA's Dr. Sundlof. Adds Lawrence Schonberger, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, "There may well be some people in the United States who are incubating the disease." (The disease's incubation period remains unknown, but it is believed to take years, even decades, before symptoms emerge.)

But one of the scientists involved in looking for human cases says the surveillance effort to date is inadequate and that the U.S. "is way behind" other countries, including Canada. "There's no question in my mind that this country must have good surveillance because if we miss these cases, then we are in trouble," warns Pierluigi Gambetti, director of the National Prion Disease Pathology Surveillance Center at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Mad-cow is one of several related brain disorders believed to be caused by an aberrant protein known as a prion.

Dr. Gambetti says he's concerned because vCJD potentially is much more infectious than classical CJD, a prion disease already present in the U.S. Classical CJD occurs spontaneously in about one in every million people and can be transmitted through surgical instruments used in brain operations. Although there's no known case of a human passing vCJD to another human, scientists are worried it may be transmissible through blood or other means. That fear has prompted restrictions in the U.S. on blood donors who have spent time in Britain and the rest of Europe.

Dr. Gambetti says there are about 300 reported cases of prion diseases in the U.S. each year, but that his lab currently is analyzing only about a third of them to see if they might be mad-cow disease. "The British and Germans politely smile when they see we examine 30% or 40% of the cases," he says. "They know unless you examine 80% or more, you are not in touch."

At the CDC, which helps to fund Dr. Gambetti's lab, Dr. Schonberger agrees that "the more autopsies that are done, the better it will be for detecting" vCJD. But he believes the surveillance in the U.S. up until now has been adequate because, even though relatively few autopsies have been done, the CDC has reviewed the medical records of all victims of prion disease under the age of 55 and has found no cases of mad-cow.

Write to Steve Stecklow at steve.stecklow@wsj.com


Home | News | Organics | GE Food | Health | Environment | Food Safety | Fair Trade | Peace | Farm Issues | Politics
Forum | Español | Campaigns | Buying Guide | Press | Search | Volunteer | Donate | About Us | Contact Us | Email This Page

Organic Consumers Association - 6771 South Silver Hill Drive, Finland MN 55603
E-mail: Staff · Activist or Media Inquiries: 218-226-4164 · Fax: 218-353-7652
Please support our work. Send a tax-deductible donation to the OCA

Fair Use Notice: The material on this site is provided for educational and informational purposes. It may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. It is being made available in an effort to advance the understanding of scientific, environmental, economic, social justice and human rights issues etc. It is believed that this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have an interest in using the included information for research and educational purposes. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. The information on this site does not constitute legal or technical advice.
Please Support Our Sponsors!

Organic Valley

Organic
Valley

Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps

Dr. Bronner's
Magic Soaps

Botani Organic

Botani
Organic

Aloha Bay

Aloha Bay

Eden Organics

Eden Foods

Frey Vineyards

Frey
Vineyards

Intelligent Nutrients

Intelligent
Nutrients