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Survey Backs Increased Testing of U.S. Beef Supply

January 28, 2004 Tri-City Herald By Les Blumenthal
WASHINGTON -- As the Food and Drug Administration moved to further protect the safety of the nation's beef supply, a new national survey showed 70 percent of Americans would like to see increased testing of cattle for mad cow disease, even if it means higher meat prices.

The survey, by Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, also found 60 percent of those questioned believed all cattle should be tested for mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, and that 89 percent strongly believed the U.S. Agriculture Department should have the authority to recall tainted meat. Currently, such recalls are voluntary.

Almost 80 percent of those surveyed said in the event of a recall, the department should make public the names of stores and restaurants that sold contaminated meat. Names are not currently released because of confidentiality rules.

Of those who said they would pay more for additional testing, 95 percent said they would pay 10 cents more a pound.

"The public overwhelmingly supports testing to ensure that the beef they eat is safe, and what's more important, this poll shows they are willing to put their money behind it," said Michael Hansen, a senior research associate for Consumers Union.

"Testing every cow would be a gargantuan task," Tommy Thompson, secretary of Health and Human Services, told reporters Tuesday.

Every year, more than 35 million cattle are slaughtered in the United States. The cost of testing is estimated at about $ 50 for each animal. About 40,000 cattle will be tested this year.

But the idea of increased testing has been gaining support on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., told the Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday that without increased testing, there was no way to know how many cattle might be infected.

"It's similar to trying to estimate the prevalence of HIV infection in people by only testing individuals who have symptoms of AIDS," said Durbin, who has introduced a bill that would require BSE testing for all cattle and bison over 30 months old and all sheep, goats, deer and elk over 12 months.

Thompson said the new FDA rules only would enhance food safety. The FDA is part of the Department of Health and Human Services.

"We have been concerned our rules didn't go far enough," Thompson said.

While the USDA oversees the safety of most of the nation's meat supply, the FDA oversees everything from canned soup and pizza to dietary supplements and cosmetics.

The new FDA rules will bar use of meat or any "high-risk materials" from so-called downer animals in those products. The USDA took a similar step. Downer animals are sick or injured and cannot stand.

The infected Mabton Holstein was characterized as a downer animal before it was slaughtered.

The new FDA rules also ban use of cattle blood in cattle feed, to which blood often is added as a protein supplement. There has been increasing concern the disease could be passed on by tainted blood.

Such a concern also extends to humans, said Lester Crawford, FDA deputy commissioner.

Humans can get a version of BSE, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, by eating contaminated beef. The human version is always fatal.

Crawford said a 63-year-old man in Britain died recently from the blood he received in a transfusion six years ago from a man later found to have variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. "We are very concerned," Crawford said.

Also Tuesday, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, tesifying before the committee, said that once the test results on the Holstein showed it had mad cow disease, the public was "immediately" informed.


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