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US government has long had concerns about the safety of livestock feed but, until now, haven't acted on them

January 16, 2004 National Public Radio (NPR) Morning Edition

The US government is rewriting federal rules for protecting cattle and people from mad cow disease after a single case was traced to a herd in Washington state. For example, sick or injured cattle no longer can be turned into food. Some food safety advocates say those changes don't go far enough. In fact, the government has long had concerns about the safety of livestock feed but, until now, haven't acted on them. NPR's Christopher Joyce reports.


In the late 1990s, scientists in a Montana laboratory were experimenting with one of the several forms of mad cow disease. They infected a hamster, then injected the hamster tissue into mice. The mice never got the disease, but when tissue from these mice was injected back into healthy hamsters, the hamsters got sick. The mice appeared to be silent carriers of the disease agent.

Mad cow experts took note. They had already banned the practice of putting cattle parts into cattle feed as a protein supplement. That practice was how mad cow disease got spread through the United Kingdom and Europe. But it was still common to use cattle parts in feed for other animals. Michael Hansen of Consumers Union says the Montana experiment changed that.

Mr. MICHAEL HANSEN (Consumers Union): That's when European Union banned all mammalian protein going into food animals, in part, because of this problem, the animals potentially being silent carriers.

JOYCE: But the US and Canada did not follow suit. Leftover cattle parts from slaughterhouses are still rendered, essentially cooked, and added to feed for chickens and hogs. Richard Sellers of the American Feed Industry Association says the cattle tissue is a small part of the feed, about three parts per hundred.

Mr. RICHARD SELLERS (American Feed Industry Association): It is a good protein source. It also has a value in terms of waste disposal. The alternative is to put these animal products out into a landfill or incinerate them at tremendous costs. And this turns them into a valuable protein for a hungry world.

JOYCE: Sellers points out that scientists have tried to infect chickens and hogs with mad cow disease and failed. But Bruce Chesebro isn't so certain. He's the scientist who performed the experiment at the Montana lab of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He agrees that there's no evidence that chickens and hogs could become silent carriers, but he says the agents that cause mad cow and its variations are unpredictable.

Mr. BRUCE CHESEBRO (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases): When you cross the species barrier with one of these agents, unpredictable events can occur, and so going to another species is always venturing into the unknown.

JOYCE: The possibility that chickens or hogs could get infected and pass on disease to humans may be remote. But food-safety advocates say it's the chicken feed with cattle tissue in it that's the immediate problem. They worry it can get back into cattle. For one thing, mills that make both kinds of feed could get them mixed up. Richard Sellers of the Feed Industry says that's unlikely. Most mills make one kind or the other. He says the government inspects mills regularly. The Feed Association also is recommending better record-keeping at feed mills and rendering plants. But Michael Hansen of Consumers Union says chicken feed with the cattle parts in it can end up in the cattle trough another way. That's because the manure and litter on the chicken house floor sometimes is swept up and fed to cattle.

Mr. HANSEN: And the poultry litter can--up to 30 percent of it--can be uneaten chicken feed which can come from the brain and spinal cord and other things from cattle. That's another potential direct pathway which has not been closed and has been like that since 1997.

JOYCE: The Food and Drug Administration is in charge of what goes into livestock feed. Over two years ago, the FDA issued a proposed new rule that could change these feed practices and other potential leaks in the feed ban. The agency has not acted on the comments it received and says it's not granting interviews on the subject. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.


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