Gaps in food-safety system could leave way open for mad-cow disease, some say

April 4, 2001 Copley News Service by Dori Meinert
Federal experts Wednesday sought to reassure the public that the government has taken adequate steps to prevent the spread of mad-cow disease from Europe to the United States.

Even travelers to Europe have little to fear, they said.

''The danger of driving to the airport is greater than eating meat in Europe,'' Richard Johnson, a special adviser to the National Institutes of Health, told a Senate panel.

Americans' concern and confusion over the dual European epidemics of mad-cow and foot-and-mouth disease caused Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., to call the Senate's first hearing on mad-cow disease to assess the U.S. response.

While the virus that causes foot-and-mouth disease doesn't affect humans[common misconception--BSE Coordinator], mad-cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), has been linked to a type of dementia called variant Creutzfeld Jakob Disease. The disease has killed 97 people in Great Britain since 1995. It's believed to be transmitted by eating brain or spinal cord tissue from infected cattle.

No cases of mad-cow disease have been reported in the United States, thanks in large part to the quick response of the U.S. cattle industry and federal agencies in banning imports of cattle and cattle feed from England and other affected countries.

''While the risks may be low, we cannot be complacent,'' Fitzgerald said at the hearing's outset.

After the hearing, Fitzgerald was noncommittal about whether more aggressive government action is needed.

''I don't know whether anything more needs to be done. It sounded like we're doing an awful lot,'' said Fitzgerald, who said he wants to first see the results of a Harvard University study of potential U.S. risks due out in the next few months.

The U.S. Agriculture Department banned the import of British cattle in 1989 and expanded the ban to other European countries in 1997. The same year, the Food and Drug Administration prohibited feeding animal byproducts to cattle and sheep.

However, gaps remain in the food-safety system that could leave Americans vulnerable, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and consumer advocates told the panel.

A General Accounting Office study requested by Durbin last year found that 20 percent of the feed mills and plants that use byproducts had no system to prevent commingling of feeds that contain animal byproducts and those that don't.

FDA officials said recent inspections have shown improvement. Of 184 re-inspections on April 2, only one firm remained out of compliance, said Stephen Sundloff, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine.

Another potential danger to the public's health can be found in meat processing, testified Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Machines that take the meat off the bone can also remove the spinal cord itself. Spinal cords from cows with BSE are highly infectious. Hot dogs and sausages are allowed to contain up to 20 percent of the mechanically separated meat, she said. Great Britain now bans bovine byproducts such as the brain, spinal cord, tonsils, thymus, spleen and intestines from human-food products.

Several senators, including Durbin, called for creation of a task force to coordinate the federal government's efforts to prevent mad-cow disease. Durbin also called for updated information on imported foods and feeds to be given to border agents so they ''will not have to play a guessing game'' to determine whether a product being brought into the country contains meat or is from a country where BSE has occurred.

William Hueston, a University of Maryland scientist who co-chaired a study on mad-cow disease, warned the panel that while ''the likelihood of BSE in the U.S. is very low it is not zero.''

He urged Congress to increase funding for prevention and detection.

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