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U.S. Inspections for Disease Lag Behind Those Abroad

December 24, 2003 The New York Times by by Marian Burros and Donald G. Mcneil Jr.
In discussing the case of mad cow disease apparently found in Washington State, Secretary of Agriculture Ann M. Veneman said yesterday that her department tested 20,526 cattle for mad cow disease last year. But that is only a small percentage of the 35 million commercially slaughtered each year.

Because no domestic cases of mad cow disease have been found before, the United States has never put in place the kind of stringent testing done in Japan and some European countries, where every animal is supposed to be tested before humans can eat it.

Inspectors are supposed to view cattle outside slaughterhouses and weed out any having trouble walking. Those with signs of brain disease are to be ruled unfit for human consumption and sent to a rendering plant.

That appears to have happened with the Washington cow. Yesterday, Elsa Murano, under secretary of agriculture for food safety, said its brain and spinal column had been sent to such a plant, to be turned into protein feed, oils and other products. It is the brain and spinal cord that are the most likely to be infected with prions, the misfolded proteins that can lead to a mad-cow-like disease in humans.

This does not guarantee that infected matter will never make its way into the human food supply, critics noted yesterday.

Under Food and Drug Administration regulations issued in 1997, it is illegal to feed protein made from cows, sheep, deer and other so-called ruminants to other ruminants. But it is still legal to feed the rendered protein to pigs, chickens and other animals. Those animals in turn can be rendered and fed to cows or sheep. Also, beef blood and beef fat can be fed to calves.

"You can go into any feed store and buy Calf Starter or calf milk substitute," said John Stauber, co-author of "Mad Cow U.S.A.," a 1997 book that warned that the disease could reach this country. "We're weaning calves on cattle blood proteins, even though we know blood plasma can carry the disease."

Also, said Sheldon Rampton, Mr. Stauber's co-author, questions have been raised about how effective the F.D.A. bans on feeding across species are.

If an animal becomes infected, the incubation period of the disease is three to eight years, so the detection of one animal with the disease suggests that others may have been infected by the same source but have not yet been found.

Mr. Stauber said an F.D.A. memorandum in 1997 predicted that if a single case of encephalopathy was found in the United States and a total ban on all feeding of animal protein to animals was immediately enacted, it was still possible that as many as 299,000 infected cows would be found over the next 11 years.

In the past, the hooves and horns were used for gelatins and bone and blood meal as fertilizer and the fat became soap. But with the invention of chemical soaps and fertilizers in the 1960's, other uses had to be found for the waste, and the animal protein market developed as a cheap way to bulk up animals.

Feed plants are inspected by the F.D.A., not the Department of Agriculture. In 2001, the F.D.A. was so short of inspectors that nearly a third of the country's 10,000 feed plants were not inspected.


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