Mad Cow Disease and Pet Food

April 4, 2001 The Washington Post by Don Oldenburg

Last January, Purina Mills mistakenly shipped a batch of livestock feed to a Texas cattle ranch. It contained ingredients banned by the federal government as a safeguard against mad cow disease in the United States. That concerns Maria Rowan. She's troubled by news reports of the disease (which is fatal to humans who eat infected livestock, as well as the animals themselves) as it spreads across Europe. But she's also worried about pets in this country -- specifically about Sparkle, her cat.

"Are the meat byproducts and bone meal that are currently being used to produce pet foods the very same ingredients that are not approved for use in livestock feed?" asks the Kensington resident, after finding out that Purina would buy the Texas cattle that ate the banned feed.

Rowan also wonders, "Is it possible to avoid the risk of exposing our pets to contaminated beef products in pet foods by checking ingredient lists?"

According to the Food and Drug Administration, commercial pet foods "quite possibly" contain the meat byproducts and bone meal banned from livestock feeds for ruminant animals such as cows and sheep. There are no restrictions on using it in dog or cat food, or in feed for pigs, horses and chickens.

"It is important to note that just because meat and bone meal are prohibited for use in ruminants, it is not necessarily infected," emphasizes the FDA.

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), a k a "mad cow disease," is believed to be transmitted through animal feed containing certain animal proteins that may harbor the BSE infectious agent. According to the Department of Agriculture, no cattle in the United States have been found with BSE. No human cases of BSE-related disease have been found here. No evidence of BSE has been found anywhere in dogs, horses, and other pets, such as birds, reptiles, and gerbils. A feline version of BSE has been documented in cats in Europe, mostly in the United Kingdom, but not in the United States.

Since 1991, the United States has banned the import of animal foods, including pet food, containing ruminant materials from countries with BSE. The ban extended to all of Europe in 1997 and, last December, it included imports of animal proteins from any species from 31 countries known to have BSE or considered at high risk.

The FDA says the risk of transmitting BSE to cats through pet food in the United States is "low" because pet food containing meat cannot be imported from at-risk countries, and all meat in U.S.-manufactured pet food comes from U.S. animals that are BSE-free.

As for reading pet-food labels for clues, the FDA says: "It's unlikely that you would be able to determine from the labels whether the meat and bone meal in pet foods come from cattle or other animals."

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