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Rule Intended to Curb Mad Cow May Have Unexpected Consequences

LINCOLN - Nebraska's state veterinarian is among those worried that dead cattle could be left to rot in windbreaks or ditches because of a federal regulation intended to prevent mad cow disease. The new rule, which takes effect April 27, says cattle over 30 months of age can't be rendered for animal feed unless their brains and spinal cords are removed first.

The Food and Drug Administration regulation is intended to prevent the prions that cause bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, from slipping into livestock feed and causing an outbreak in cattle. Prions are found in the brain and spinal cord.

The rendering truck is a popular method for disposing of cattle that die before going to market. But some fear that rendering companies may stop picking up dead cattle or that higher fees will discourage farmers from calling a rendering company when an animal dies. The result could be dead cattle that are illegally dumped.

"It's going to be a major problem, " said State Veterinarian Dennis Hughes, who works for the Nebraska Department of Agriculture. "We fear farmers are going to be hauling them into shelterbelts or ditches, to make good coyote food."

Although the rule will cause disposal challenges, the FDA maintains that the rule is needed to control the spread of mad cow disease.

FDA press officer Michael Herndon said more than 200 people have died worldwide from the human form of mad cow disease, including three cases in the United States that probably resulted from exposure outside the country.

"The FDA has an obligation to put control measures in place that will prevent the threats to public and animal health," Herndon said.

The regulation will have the most impact on the dairy industry - which accounts for about 300 farms and 60,000 cattle in Nebraska.

Milk cows, which are more likely to reach old age, are most productive after 3 years of age and can continue to produce until they're 15 or older. Beef cattle, in contrast, often go to slaughter before they're 2 years old.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 4.2 million cattle and calves died before slaughter during 2007, roughly 4 percent of that year's Jan. 1 cattle inventory. Nebraska saw about a 3 percent death loss, or about 200,000 head. Iowa experienced about a 4.6 percent death loss, or about 185,000 cattle and calves.

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