Experts See Flaws in U.S. Mad Cow Safeguards

May 8, 2001 The New York Times by Marian Burros

Despite stringent measures to protect people and cattle from mad cow disease, experts in and out of government say more can be done.

"While the government has taken a lot of actions to prevent mad cow disease from infecting cattle, including a ban on the importation of cattle from affected countries, there are holes in the fire wall," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group.

The experts point to several areas of concern:

*The United States lags behind Europe in testing cattle for the disease, which is believed to be caused by aberrant proteins called prions.

*Machines that are used to strip meat scraps from carcasses can leave the meat contaminated with nervous system tissue, where the prions are believed to concentrate.

*There is little regulation of dietary supplements, some of which contain nervous system tissue from cattle.

*Regulations to prevent prion contamination of animal feed are unevenly enforced.

Mad cow disease is believed to have spread among cattle in Britain when nervous system tissue from infected animals was ground up in feed. The practice of using waste from cattle or other ruminants in feed for those animals was banned in Britain in 1988 and in the United States in 1997.

Agriculture Department officials say everything possible is being done to protect cattle and the nation's food supply.

"We have amended our actions as the risks have changed and the science has changed," said Dr. Linda Detwiler, a veterinarian who leads the mad cow disease working group at the Agriculture Department.

For example, Dr. Detwiler said, the agency will be testing more ailing cows -- so-called downer cows -- for signs of mad cow disease. Dr. Detwiler said that quicker tests are under study.

Meanwhile, Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman said the department was seeking money for additional efforts. She said financing would be increased for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which works to prevent disease transmission and for border inspections to keep infected animals out of the country. An Agriculture Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the agency was "very short-staffed and the number of people in the field keeps going down."

Mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or B.S.E., leaves brain tissue spongy and full of holes. Other animals are infected by similar transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, among them scrapie, in sheep, and chronic wasting disease, in deer and elk.

The human form, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, was identified in 1926 and kills about 250 Americans a year. Some people inherit a susceptibility to the incurable disease, but causes in most cases are unknown.

Until recently, scientists believed that the disease seen in one species could not infect members of other species. But in 1996 doctors in Britain identified young people who seemed to have Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which typically strikes the elderly. They later determined these young people had a new variant of C.J.D., which they attributed to eating meat from cows with B.S.E. The disease has now claimed more than 100 lives, most of them in Britain.

Dr. Marcus Doherr, a veterinarian epidemiologist at the University of Bern, in Switzerland, said the United States should test more slaughtered cattle for signs of B.S.E. Dr. Doherr helped develop the Swiss testing program, which many experts consider the most advanced.

Dr. Thomas Pringle, who runs the Sperling Biomedical Foundation in Eugene, Ore., and is an authority on mad cow disease, points out that many downer cows go directly from the farm to the plant where they are turned into feed without being tested. Dr. Doherr also recommends more stringent regulations for meat that is mechanically stripped from carcasses in processing plants.

A small test conducted by the Agriculture Department in 1997 showed that of the 13 samples of meat stripped by machinery, two contained spinal cord tissue. The meat stripped mechanically is used in hamburgers, hot dogs and other sausage products.

As a result, the department began requiring processors to remove the spinal cord before putting the carcass in the machine, and it said it would randomly inspect the meat for traces of nervous system tissue.

"We are still doing tests for central nervous system meat recovery, but not much," said Dr. I. Kay Wachsmuth, deputy administrator for the office of public health and science in the Food Safety and Inspection Service at the Agriculture Department.

From the approximately 45 million pounds of mechanically stripped meat each year, 27 samples were taken in 2000; one was positive for traces of nerve tissue.

Ms. DeWaal said the United States should adopt European-style rules banning the spinal column that encases the cord from use in mechanical meat recovery systems. Cattle feed can also be hazardous. Regulatory authority over animal feed rests with the Food and Drug Administration. In 1997 the agency outlawed the feeding of meat and bone meal from mammals to cattle and sheep. But chickens, pigs and farm-raised fish are still given feed made from slaughterhouse waste. When those animals are slaughtered, their waste is, in turn, fed to cattle and sheep.

Also, the F.D.A. recently reported that more than 20 percent of the companies inspected over the last three years were either keeping inadequate records, not labeling their products to distinguish feed containing mammal products from others or had no method to prevent waste from cows and sheep from being mixed with waste of chickens or fish.

Dr. Murray Lumpkin, a senior medical adviser in the office of the F.D.A. commissioner, said that the rate of compliance had increased so that almost all inspected plants now met standards. But he said that as many as 3,000 of about 10,000 feed mills in this country had not been inspected. "With more resources the fire wall could be stronger," Dr. Lumpkin said.

Errors can also be made in the feedlot or on the farm. In January, more than 1,000 cattle at a Texas feedlot were quarantined after they had been mistakenly fed the banned feed. Purina Mills, which had supplied the feed, agreed to buy the animals and said they would be destroyed. Four calls to Purina to determine the fate of the animals were not returned.

"Chances of feed getting mixed up are pretty substantial," said Carol Tucker Foreman, the director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America and a former assistant secretary of agriculture for the Food Safety and Inspection Service. Ms. Foreman said the ban on feed made from cattle and sheep should cover all animals.

In a recent interview, Dr. Bernard Schwetz, the acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said safety might also be improved by letting certain mills mix only feed for cattle and sheep and others mix feed for chickens and pigs. But Dr. Schwetz said those decisions were not imminent. "We will be talking about them within the next year," he said.

Since Dec. 31, the European Union has forbidden animal protein in feed for any animals.

Dr. George Gray, the director of the program on food safety and agriculture at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis in the School of Public Health, said a total ban on animal protein in feed "might be a wise decision." The Agriculture Department commissioned Dr. Gray's center to perform an assessment on additional steps that might be taken to reduce the risk of mad cow disease in the United States.

There is wide agreement that preventing outbreaks of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in the United States means regulating more than food.

For example, certain dietary supplements, called glandulars, can contain freeze-dried brain and spinal cord from cows, tissues in which prions reside. This material is believed to be used in less than 1 percent of supplements.

But because the F.D.A. has limited authority to regulate dietary supplements, it cannot ban the importation of these glandular materials from countries where mad cow disease exists.

Five dietary supplement industry trade associations said they were working to provide the government and consumers with information about the precautions being taken by their members. But many small companies do not belong to any trade associations.

Dr. Walter Hueston, a former Agriculture Department official who did the agency's first risk assessment on mad cow disease and is now a professor of veterinary epidemiology at the University of Maryland, said the biggest obstacle to improved government surveillance was lack of money.

"The surveillance program needs to be expanded," Dr. Hueston said. "If we have to deal with an outbreak of a disease like B.S.E. we are constrained by a lack of resources."

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