Mad-cow safeguards

Mad-cow safeguards

March 12, 2002 The Boston Globe
AGGRESSIVE efforts to prevent an outbreak of mad cow disease in the United States are called for not just to spare some Americans from a gruesome fatal disease, but also to protect the country's $56 billion beef industry. A recent report by the General Accounting Office raises doubts about whether the federal agencies with the responsibility to prevent the disease fully understand what is at stake.

So far, no mad cow disease - bovine spongiform encephalopathy - has been detected in US livestock. Nor has there been any case here in human beings of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which BSE causes when infected animal parts are fed to people. But until recently, Japan could make the same boasts, only to discover the disease in at least two cattle there. A review last year of US defenses by the Harvard School of Public Health Center for Risk Analysis said the risk of infection here was low, but pointed to many of the same weak links as the GAO report. In Europe, where variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob has taken about 100 lives and could be incubating in many more people, BSE was transmitted among animals through bonemeal feed. Cattle ingested feed from the rendered remains of BSE victims.

To shield the US market, the federal government has banned the importation of live cattle, beef, or animal parts from BSE-afflicted countries. Officials have also tried to track down live animals that might have been imported before the ban was in place but after BSE started appearing in English herds. The GAO report faults government officials for not doing more tissue examinations from animals that die on farms, before they reach slaughterhouses. To protect humans from unwittingly eating hamburger that includes the central nervous system tissue that is most likely to be infected, the US Department of Agriculture should restrict the use of advanced meat recovery machines that get everything but the moo off of cattle bones.

To keep any undiagnosed BSE in animals from spreading, there is a ban on the use of parts from dead cattle in the feed of US cattle, though they can be used in the feed of other farm animals. Again, the GAO report says the Food and Drug Administration has been too slack in enforcing this restriction.

Proper enforcement means monitoring the country's 10,000 renderers, feed manufacturers, feed haulers and distributors, making sure that bonemeal with the suspect materials is labeled and kept out of the stream for cattle feed. According to the GAO, at least 364 companies are out of compliance.

If 100 percent compliance is so difficult, Congress should consider banning the use of dead cattle as feed for any farm animals. The cost of this lost resource would be dwarfed by the blow the beef industry would suffer in any mad-cow outbreak here.

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