Mad cow forces change in Colo. Cattle - feed fears spur more regulation

April 9, 2001 The Denver Post by Michael Booth

WIGGINS - Steve Gabel hasn't seen mad cow disease in the  United States, and he doesn't expect to.

But all around him he sees changes that fears of mad cow have  brought to Colorado's food chain - at his sprawling, bawling  feedlot here and throughout an industry that raises beef, puts it  on the dinner plate and then feeds leftover cattle parts back to  animals.

As a major link in the beef chain, Gabel has a philosophy:  Trust but verify. Trust that new U.S. regulations are keeping  potentially dangerous cattle remains out of the protein  supplements he uses to fatten 20,000 steers and heifers for  slaughter. But verify that a key roadblock that might have  prevented the spread of mad cow to 95 humans in Europe is up and  working by sending feed out for independent lab tests.

Among cattlemen notorious for hating bureaucracy, combating  mad cow has them demanding reams of new paperwork from each other  every day.

Gabel demands certification from his feed company that there  are no cow parts in the mix. He's upped his lab tests of the  protein supplement from quarterly to monthly. The meatpacker where  Gabel sends his steers to slaughter demands more paperwork from  him, guaranteeing that while Gabel had the live animals, he fed  them no dead cow parts.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has as much paperwork on  cattle arriving here from Europe as the border patrol has on human  visitors. Maybe more, since humans don't arrive with metal ear  tags.

Colorado State University researchers are helping the beef  industry develop a test to guarantee that no brain or nervous  tissue - the most likely conveyors of mad cow - remain in a slab  of red meat. A major Denver rendering plant builds new partitions  to raise a firewall between chicken parts and cattle parts.

Those precautions are aimed at keeping one of the more  terrifying illnesses of modern times - bovine spongiform  encephalopathy - from crossing to humans in America and destroying  a way of eating for consumers and a way of living for ranchers.

'We probably take a more cautious approach to everything we  do,' said Gabel, who runs Magnum Feedyard and is a longtime board  member of the Colorado Livestock Association. 'It's heightened our  awareness that consumers have a genuine concern about food safety  issues.'

Mad cow disease is one form of always fatal brain diseases  that attack many species consumed by humans. Researchers now say  they believe cattle in England first contracted the disease by  eating feed that included remains of sheep infected with scrapie,  a similar affliction.

Cattle that ate the sheep remains were then slaughtered, and  throwaway parts were made into feed for other cattle, all at a  time when England's rendering process was undergoing a change that  allowed the disease to survive. Those cattle parts in the feed  infected more cattle, and the disease made the leap to humans who  ate tainted beef or other remains.

No human cases have appeared in the U.S., and no U.S. cattle  have tested positive for mad cow, though critics claim the  11,000-odd cattle tested by federal regulators in the past decade  are a tiny sample of the nation's 100 million live cattle. The  U.S. banned imports of any livestock from European nations in  1997, and stopped the common practice among U.S. stockyards of  using cattle feed made from dead-cattle protein.

In Europe, meanwhile, beef sales have plummeted, and  livestock herds were decimated by mandatory slaughter long before  an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease added to farm woes.

As a key link in the U.S. food chain, Gabel stands guard at  his northeast Colorado feed lot and carefully checks the lab tests  coming back each month on the protein supplements his cattle are  eating. The words he searches for: 'No mammalian byproducts  evident.'

Before the 1997 ban, the beef industry employed methods  amounting to cow cannibalism. Renderers sold feedlots protein  supplements, including cattle bone meal and throwaway body parts.  Protein supplements made up about 3 percent or 4 percent of the  diet, and only 2 percent to 3 percent of the supplement came from  cattle remains, Gabel said.

So the switch to other feed was not difficult for his lot.  High-protein soybean meal has replaced the banned portion of the  feed. But his own screening is not enough, Gabel has learned just  in the past month.

'The packing industry we send to and the livestock auction  markets are now asking that we sign a certification statement that  no mammalian-derived protein products were fed or administered to  the cattle in the time we had them,' Gabel said. 'That, in turn,  has forced us to do a better job of verifying.'

Up and down the food chain from Gabel's feedlot, other people  are watching just as carefully.

Cattle tracking

If the food chain hadn't gone global in the 20th century,  preventing mad cow here at home would be easier. Since  globalization became a given, agriculture officials have scrambled  to make sure the disease never arrives.

They rely on a sophisticated tracking system that allows  them to find a German cow in Texas four years after import, even  as many human immigrants race across the border unnoticed.

In 1989, the U.S. banned livestock imports from England  because of mad cow. That was only a few hundred animals,  specialized stock for breeding purposes. Then, as mad cow showed  up in other European countries, imports from the entire continent  were banned in 1997. And federal trackers started looking for the  fewer than 50 ruminants imported from Germany and the Low Countries.

Most had gone to Texas, but eight ended up in Colorado. 'The  intention was to keep them out of the human food chain,' said U.S.  Department of Agriculture import expert Lisa Ferguson. 'Not  necessarily to destroy them, but to identify where they are and  monitor them.'

The Texas buyer of the cattle doesn't have to keep records on  where the cattle go after that, but most do, because the breeding  animals are valuable. If the USDA can't find those papers, it can  to go state records requiring an import or export permit with the  same ID number the animal had on its metal ear tag when it arrived  in America. Failing state records, the USDA will go to breeder  associations, which keep track to help the industry.

The eight that came to Colorado were bought, destroyed and  tested. Some of the 40-odd imports from Continental Europe are  still under quarantine in other states. None has shown any signs  of mad cow.

Slaughtering and cutting

The people who slaughter and cut up cattle must be ready,  too, despite all the measures the U.S. has taken to avoid mad cow  earlier in the food chain.

Colorado State University has been a key adviser to the  meatpacking industry, with ConAgra and Excel, two of the beef  powerhouses nationwide, controlling much of Colorado's cattle  market from plants in Fort Morgan and Greeley.

Mad cow disease lodges in the brain and central neural  matter, such as the spinal cord. CSU animal science professor  Glenn Schmidt and his colleagues knew a traditional slaughter  method was dangerous: A sharp injection of air to the brain could  splatter diseased tissue into prime cuts of meat, as their tests  proved.

Though it sounds just as brutal, Schmidt found that using an  air gun to inject a metal bolt instead of air into the animal's  brain avoided tainting the meat. The slaughter industry quickly  changed its methods.

'That is history. I think we've solved this problem,' Schmidt  said. [As reported by Texas A and M researchers in The Lancet, captive bolt stunning of cattle can spread prions throughout the bodies of animals stunned for slaughter--BSE coordinator]

Other danger zones remain. Packers use mechanical knives and  separators to take less valuable meat off the carcass for  hamburger or other products. If those mechanisms strike neural  tissue, meat could be tainted. So CSU has helped adapt a test used  in Alzheimer's research to check whether commercial beef cuts have  neural matter at higher-than-background levels.

'We're working with a German company to make a simpler test  kit that will be more useful to the industry,' Schmidt said. He  thinks the recent concentration of meatpacking into a few powerful  companies actually makes safety measures easier, as they have so  far been extremely responsive to consumer worries.

'The phone rings all the time. They come to visit me, they  come to see how we do our tests,' Schmidt said.

Rendering and recycling

The link in the food chain getting jerked the most these days  is the rendering business, never a crowd favorite even in a good  year. When the federal government said meat and bone meal from  dead cattle could no longer be fed to live cattle or other  ruminants, Ken Kage saw the bottom fall out of his market.

At north Denver's National By-Products, in the shadow of the  Stock Show grounds, Kage's company picks up fallen deadstock from  ranchers, animal byproducts, and dirty cooking oil from  restaurants. They pressure-cook everything between 240 and 280  degrees, extracting fat and protein that then is added to  everything from dog food to chicken scratch.

Since cattle feeders like Steve Gabel can no longer buy the  cattle remains that Kage sells, 'fewer buyers means lower price,'  Kage said. He used to sell rendered cattle and other ruminant  protein for $ 200 a ton; now it goes for $ 140 a ton or less to  poultry or other farms still allowed to use it.

At the same time his price is going down, Kage's costs are  going up to comply with the new rules. Rendered poultry remains  can still be fed to cattle. Making sure that stays separate from  the banned cattle remains means building new storage bins, putting  up new walls, carefully labeling every batch and adding new flush  systems to machines to clean between production runs.

The federal Agriculture Department will come through his  plant again this month to make sure National By-Products is still  complying with the rules. And on their own, renderers across the  nation hired a third-party auditing firm to survey every major  plant for compliance.

There are critics who say all these safety checks on various  links in the food chain are admirable but not enough. Some  consumer advocates want more testing of dead cattle. Others want a  blanket ban on the feeding of any animal remains to other animals;  this would prevent, for example, cattle remains being fed to  chickens, whose remains can be fed back to cattle, potentially  spreading disease.

A more strident group, the Washington, D.C.-based Physicians  Committee for Responsible Medicine, goes well beyond that, saying  the solution to animal diseases is for humans not to eat animals.  'The safest bet is to avoid those foods altogether. Get our  nutrients from plant-based sources,' said the group's  nutritionist, Amy Lanou.

The fear that more American consumers will heed that severe  advice is what has the meat industry looking in the mirror.

'Nobody wants a question about the integrity of the product,'  said CSU's Schmidt. 'From the rancher all the way to the fast food  outlet.'

Michael Booth can be reached at or  303-820-1686. [...]

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