Mad cow disease defenses are inadequate, GAO says;
but agriculture department says report is flawed

February 27, 2001 St. Louis Post-Dispatch by Tina Hesman
Government agencies aren't doing enough to ensure that mad cow disease stays out of the United States, according to a report released Tuesday by the General Accounting Office.

Although mad cow disease has never been detected here, the report concludes that current safety measures may not find infected animals soon enough to stop the deadly disease from spreading to other cattle or entering the human food supply.

"When we sit down to the dinner table, we should know that what we are eating is as safe as we can make it," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. He and Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., asked for the study after a review last year showed many feed handlers weren't following a ban on feeding certain animal proteins to cattle. If mad cow disease were to appear here, it could devastate the $56 billion beef industry, the GAO report suggests. Consumers in Europe rejected hamburgers and steaks by the tons last year when mad cow disease was discovered in cattle in countries such as Germany, Italy and Japan, where the disease had not been known to exist.

The report seems to contradict conclusions of a three-year study done by Harvard University's Center for Risk Analysis. The Harvard report, issued last year, indicated that mad cow disease was not likely to occur in the United States, and that government safeguards now in place could eliminate the brain-wasting disease within 20 years if it ever appeared.

The GAO assessment uncovered the same weaknesses in the system designed to protect the beef supply as the Harvard study, said George M. Gray, deputy director of the Harvard center.

"Everything in there is true," Gray said. "It just lacks a little bit of perspective on how big this thing is."

The GAO admits that it didn't calculate the actual risk of mad cow disease crossing U.S. borders and infecting cattle and people here. The chance of the disease appearing here is very small, Gray said, and "if it were to get in, it's just not going to spread widely."

The United States bars the importation of meat and livestock from countries where mad cow disease has been found.

Some question the accuracy of the GAO's report.

"We have concerns that despite extensive comments on the draft report, the GAO did not correct the scientific and technical errors that appear in the final report," Secretary of Agriculture Ann M. Veneman said in a statement.

The Agriculture Department found factual errors and misleading statements in areas ranging from the accounting office's description of the way mad cow disease first developed to the sex of an animal with mad cow disease that was imported to Canada - it was a cow, not a steer. The disease is thought to have originated when cattle in Britain ate feed co ntaminated with the disease-causing form of a common brain protein.

The diseased protein, known as a prion, can convert the normal form of the protein into the disease form. The prions aren't easily destroyed by heat or some of the chemicals used to render animal parts for feed.

Humans may contract a version of the disease - known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease - from eating certain cattle parts infected with the prion protein. Meat and milk are generally thought to be safe, but nerve tissue - including the brain and spinal cord - could contain infectious prions.

[That's why the GAO wants meat products containing brain and spinal cord labelled as such. Quoting from the report, "In terms of the public health risk,consumers do not always know when foods and other products they use may contain central nervous system tissue,which,according to scientific experts, could pose a health risk if taken from diseased animals... Many other edible products,such as beef stock,beef extract,and beef flavoring,are frequently made by further processing (e.g.,boiling)the skeletal remains (including the vertebral column) of the carcass after most of the meat has been removed. USDA officials told us that they would expect to find central nervous system tissue in these foods." Other foods that could contain this central nervous system tissue include hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza toppings, and taco fillings. U.S. cattle aren't allowed to eat cattle spinal cord - and neither should people, especially children (these tissues are still allowed in the federal School Lunch Program). The the report continues: "In light of the experiences in Japan and other countries that were thought to be BSE free,we believe that it would be prudent for USDA to consider taking some action to inform consumers when products may contain central nervous system or other tissue that could pose a risk if taken from a BSE-infected animal.This effort would allow American consumers to make more informed choices about the products they consume." The USDA disagreed.--BSE coordinator]

Although the GAO's report may have flaws, government officials said they recognized the need to improve safeguards against the disease.

Dr. Murray Lumpkin, senior associate commissioner for the Food and Drug Administration, said he got the message from the General Accounting Office and Harvard reports.

"It's a good system. It's done a good job. But it can always be made better," Lumpkin said. "If we can make a small risk smaller ... we're all for that."

One area that needs particular improvement is the FDA's system for inspecting the cattle feed industry, the report concluded. The disease is thought to spread when cattle eat infectious prions from cattle or other ruminants - cud-chewing animals.

The database the FDA uses to track inspections is so seriously flawed that the agency does not know what is going on in the feed industry and can't tell which firms are following the rules, the GAO said.

Lumpkin acknowledged that the database is inadequate.

The FDA is set to unveil a new database in April. The new system should make it easier to keep track of violators and tighten the holes in the inspection system, Lumpkin said.

The latest inspection report, issued last Dec. 14, lists 264 firms - including seven in Illinois and 39 in Missouri - that violated the ruminant feed ban. The GAO report concludes that the FDA undercounts the number of noncompliant firms.

But feed and cattle industry representatives say many of the firms on the list aren't doing anything wrong. Companies such as T and N Inc. in Foristell and Mid-County Grain Inc. in Germantown are on the list, but neither uses animal proteins in its feed.

"We went to totally plant proteins. We're all soy," said Mark Stephens, the chief executive officer for T and N Inc.

It's not unusual for feed handlers to be cited for technical violations of the feed ban, said Gary Weber of the National Cattlemens Beef Association. The trick is identifying those firms that are really a problem, he said.

The GAO report ignores improvements that have been made since terrorist attacks last year focused attention on securing the food supply, agriculture officials say.

Some of the recommendations are just not feasible or will take time to implement, experts say.

"We're being asked to have 100 percent compliance," said Weber. "That's not something you can just flip a switch and have."

NOTES: Reporter Tina Hesman E-mail: Phone: 314-340-8325

[The report's conclusions: "BSE and vCJD are devastating,incurable,inevitably fatal diseases.If they enter the country,they can bring dire economic consequences to the cattle and beef industries.Therefore,forceful federal prevention efforts are warranted to keep BSE away from U.S.shores.Nevertheless,Customs has reported significant error rates in importer-provided information for BSE-risk shipments,import controls over bulk mail are weak,and inspection capacity has not kept pace with the growth in imports.Because of these import weaknesses -and because BSE may have entered in imports from countries that have since developed the disease -BSE may be silently incubating somewhere in the United States.If that is the case, then FDA 's failure to enforce the feed ban may already have placed U.S. herds and,in turn,the human food supply at risk.FDA has no clear enforcement strategy for dealing with firms that do not obey the feed ban, and it does not know what,if any,enforcement actions the states may be taking.Moreover,FDA has been using inaccurate,incomplete,and unreliable data to track and oversee feed ban compliance. Furthermore,if there is even a slight chance that BSE is incubating in U.S. cattle,consumer groups believe that the American public has the right to know when food and other consumer products may contain central nervous system tissue that may pose a risk to the food."--BSE coordinator]

[To read the entire text of the GAO report Mad Cow Disease: Improvements in the Animal Feed Ban and Other Regulatory Areas Would Strengthen U.S. Prevention Efforts, or order a free printed copy, go to coordinator]

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