Consumer Groups Say U.S. 'Mad Cow' Efforts Lacking

April 17, 2001 Reuters by Todd Zwillich

WASHINGTON (Reuters Health) - Consumer groups on Monday repeated their calls on the federal government to step up enforcement efforts that many say are not strong enough to keep mad cow disease out of the United States.

No cases of mad cow disease--also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy--have ever been reported in the US. Federal officials responsible for inspecting livestock and monitoring the food supply are confident their efforts will keep the brain-wasting illness out of the nation's meat supply.

Still, consumer groups speaking Monday at a Food and Drug Administration forum on BSE worried that government bans and inspection efforts have too many holes to remain effective.

FDA in 1997 banned the manufacture and use of cattle feed containing tissue from other cows or sheep. Such feeds are widely blamed for helping spread the BSE epidemic that decimated Europe's beef industry in the 1990s. But federal regulations exempt pigs from the animal feed ban because scientists believe that BSE-like diseases do not occur in pigs.

Groups called on FDA to expand regulations to ban all mammal proteins from all commercial animal feeds.

``It is perfectly acceptable to feed cattle protein to swine and to feed swine protein back to cattle,'' warned Jean Halloran, director of the Consumer Policy Institute at the Consumers Union. Recent studies have suggested that pigs, like cows, sheep, elk, deer, and other mammals, may be vulnerable to transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, she said.

Feed producers, shippers, or farmers may also unintentionally mix pig or chicken feed containing cow protein with cattle feed when they store or haul the products, added Richard Wood, the executive director of the Food Animal Concerns Trust. ``The complete segregation of feeds must be the only allowable process,'' he said.

Stephen Sundlof, who directs FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine, said that the agency was in the process of reviewing its rules on animal feeds. ``We could potentially change our position'' on allowing cattle proteins to remain in swine and chicken feeds, he said.

But the agency is still having trouble keeping up with inspections of feed mills and food. President Bush's Fiscal 2002 budget included a request for $15 million in additional funds for FDA, $10 million of which is targeted toward improved inspections.

FDA officials presented data showing that import entries of food have quadrupled since 1992 while the number of inspection personnel has remained relatively unchanged at around 640 persons. The agency has only managed to visit 80% of the rendering plants and cattle feed manufacturing facilities it set out to inspect in 1998. The figures raised the question of whether federal officials have enough money to adequately police imported food and cattle feed.

``We'd say right now that we don't,'' Sundlof said in an interview.

The additional money in the budget request is not enough to ensure that cow proteins stay out of cattle feed, said Dr. Peter Lurie, deputy director Public Citizen's Health Research Group. ``It's a start, but FDA is only inspecting an estimated 1% of all items coming into this country,'' he said.

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