Faulty firewall against mad cow disease

Faulty firewall against mad cow disease

May 10, 2001 Chattanooga Times by Harry Austin
While mad cow disease threatens human life and food safety in Europe and has imposed enormous damage in economies, food production and farm life, this nation -- as far as we know -- has remained largely untouched. Still, there is rising and seemingly justifiable concern that, as several experts put it, there are "holes in the firewall'' of America's precautions against spread of this devastating disease.

The United States clearly lags behind the safeguards Europeans have put in place to halt the spread of mad cow disease, more accurately known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE The U.S. tests less for the disease, takes fewer precautions against contaminated animal feed that may spread it, and does less to prevent the entry into food products of tissue that may transmit BSE The U.S. also enforces less stringently than Europe the protective regulations that are on the books, and does not regulate at all certain glandular products, used in dietary supplements, that could transmit the disease.

These are among the findings cited in a New York Times report, published Tuesday, after a survey of scientists involved in BSE research and control. They are troubling and merit full review by the government. Unfortunately, scientists familiar with policies at both the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration told The Times that insufficient staffing and resources limited regulatory enforcement and industry surveillance.

BSE destroys brain tissue and may be contracted by eating infected beef, usually in ground products, sausages and hot dogs. It also can be transmitted to healthy cows through animal protein feed stocks made from infected beef tissue. In the U.S., both avenues of entry seem available.

The disease is believed to be caused by aberrant proteins, called prions, which are easily transferable and are believed to be concentrated in nervous system tissue. That tissue, in turn, can easily wind up in all sorts of food products if the spinal column is not removed before slaughtered cattle are processed through mechanical meat strippers.

Europeans now stringently prohibit animal-based protein in cattle feed stocks, and require the separation of the spinal column from slaughtered cows before their meat is stripped. But U.S. precautions are far less stringent, and are typically enforced by random sampling, not routine inspections.

From the 45 million pounds of mechanically stripped meat in 2000, for example, U.S. food inspectors took just 27 samples, and one tested positive for nerve tissue. Thousands of the 10,000 feed mill companies do not keep records or adequately protect against mixing illegal animal protein into feed intended for cattle, and 3,000 have not yet been inspected.

The use of ground waste parts and bone meal from slaughtered animals in cattle feed was banned in Britain in 1988, but not in the United States until 1997. Even so, untested ailing cows go directly to plants to be turned into feed which, along with other slaughterhouse waste, is fed to other pigs, chickens and farm-raised fish. The slaughterhouse waste of these animals, in turn, is fed to cattle and sheep, raising the specter of a BSE transmission chain. Sheep possess a form of BSE called scrapie.

Improvements clearly are needed in regulatory control of feed sources and possible use of contaminated nervous system tissue. The problem is, the Bush administration places a much higher priority on tax cuts than regulatory improvements. Of course, if BSE does break out, steak is much less likely than hamburger to be contaminated.

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