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U.S. plans to step up mad cow sampling

U.S. plans to step up mad cow sampling

June 28, 2001 Evansville Courier & Press by Lance Gay
NEW ORLEANS - Federal veterinarians plan to double the number of ill cattle they sample for "mad cow disease" this year as part of a stepped-up effort to ensure the brain-wasting disease is not in the United States.

But consumer groups said the extra surveillance still isn't sufficient to detect the disease if it is here.

Thomas Gomez, a veterinary epidemiologist with the Department of Agriculture, told the Institute of Food Technologists convention that scientific sampling for the presence of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (the formal name for mad cow disease) among "downed cattle" brought to slaughterhouses will increase from 2,000 last year to 5,000 this year and even more next year.

"Our surveillance of this stock is going to be increasing," Gomez said, explaining that any evidence that American cattle are infected with the agent that causes mad cow disease would likely first be found in sick cattle that are brought to slaughterhouses.

Federal veterinarians have already examined the brains of more than 12,000 ill animals brought to slaughter over the last decade and have not found any evidence that the disease is in this country.

"Downed cattle" are what the industry labels sick animals that have trouble walking to the slaughterhouses because of neurological problems or other illnesses that make them want to lie down. Such cattle are normally rejected for human consumption, and turned into pet food [If downer cows can be kept alive long enough, they can be used directly for human consumption in the United States without being first tested for mad cow disease. Downed animal protection legislation might help restrict the use of downed animals for human consumption by ensuring the cows are humanely euthanized instead of oftentimes literally dragged to market--BSE coordinator]. Of an estimated 36 million cattle slaughtered in the United States each year, about 190,000 are downed cattle.

Sample called small

Michael Hansen, a microbiologist with the nonprofit Consumers Union in Yonkers, N.Y., said the increased search for mad cow cases in the United States still won't produce a large enough sample to find the disease if it is lurking undetected. The disease takes several years to develop in cattle and can't yet be detected without examining the animal's brain.

First detected in England in 1986, the disease was recently detected in a cow born and raised in the Czech Republic, marking the first time the disease has been confirmed outside of Western Europe.

Hansen said there's no biological reason the disease couldn't have come here before 1989, when the U.S. government banned imports of sheep and cattle from countries reporting disease outbreaks.

Hansen said U.S. veterinarians should carry the tests to farms. He also urged a ban on U.S. farm practices of feeding cattle blood collected at slaughterhouses to young pigs. Blood is high in protein and adds more weight to animals than milk products, but also can carry the agent that causes mad cow disease.

Wild animals ill

"When you have a disease that has this long an incubation period, you are asking for trouble if you don't test thoroughly," Hansen said.

He said brain-wasting diseases have already been detected in mink raised on downed cattle meat in the United States, suggesting the agent could already be present but undetected. There are also cases of wasting diseases in deer and elk first discovered in Colorado that seem to have spread into neighboring states and the province of Saskatchewan.

William Brown, president of the ABC Research Corp. in Gainesville, Fla., said one major problem with mad cow disease is that there is no test yet available to find it. The disease is believed caused by a mutant protein agent, called a prion, which eats holes in the brains of infected animals, but causes no other signs of disease.

The search for a test has accelerated in the wake of studies in Europe that have linked mad cow disease to [variant] Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a fatal brain disorder that, like the animal disease, causes the brains of humans to become riddled with spongelike holes.


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