Mad Cow disease - Government needs to act soon to prevent it here

April 19, 2001 San Francisco Bay Guardian by Ralph Nader

Is Mad Cow disease just a European phenomena or is it something that should trigger a significant upgrading of U.S. public health efforts?

It is true that, so far, the U.S. has escaped the Mad Cow epidemic and its human counterpart, variant Cruetzfeldt-Jacob disease (CJD). But is this the result of vigilance by our public health forces, or is it just good luck that the disease has not slipped through our defenses?

Testifying before the Senate Commerce Committee in early April, Dr. Peter Lurie, deputy director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, made it clear we have no reason to be complacent or to think that Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (better known as Mad Cow disease) is strictly a European problem. As Dr. Lurie said, the disease has often found "a way to pierce small chinks in the public health armor." And there are plenty of chinks - or perhaps full-scale gaps - in the health defenses of the United States.

Pointing out that U.S. customs inspectors already face extremely heavy workloads from the dramatic increase in global trade, Dr. Lurie said there were serious concerns that these inspectors can adequately police the borders for shipments of animal products that might carry Mad Cow disease. Even with the best customs inspections, the transhipments between countries can make it extremely difficult to determine the origin of meat and bone meal.

Deregulation of the dietary supplements industry in 1994 ripped another hole in our public health defenses, an action which now seems particularly foolhardy in the face of Mad Cow disease. Before the deregulation measure - Dietary Supplement, Health, and Education Act (DSHEA) - was enacted the industry had the burden of demonstrating the safety of its products. But the Act reversed the burden, requiring that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) show that the product was unsafe before it can take action. Seven years later the FDA still has not adopted final regulations under DSHEA, but it has issued an "Import Alert" for dietary materials coming from countries with known Mad Cow disease, but compliance is voluntary.

How serious is this bit of deregulation? Here's what Dr. Lurie told the Senators:"For BSE (Mad Cow disease), this means that an unscrupulous manufacturer could literally take a British cow brain, crush it, dry it out, formulate it into a dietary supplement and export it to the U.S."

Since 1997 the FDA has banned the feeding of mammalian parts to ruminants (cows, goats, and sheep), the main route by which the Mad Cow epidemic occurred in Britain. The FDA also prohibited the commingling of feed intended for ruminants and nonruminants (such as pigs, fish, and chickens), but Dr. Lurie found that some renderers and feed mills did not have adequate measures to prevent the commingling, and many others had yet to be inspected for compliance.

Dr. Lurie called for the end of an FDA exemption which allows the feeding of so-called plate waste (leftover food that has been prepared for or served to humans) to cows and other ruminants. He notes that the European Union, Canada, and Mexico have banned such practices.

Dr. Lurie also wants changes in the way meat is processed to avoid infectious materials from the brain and spinal cord spreading to other parts of the animal. European countries require that the brain and spinal cord be removed before processing other parts of the animal, but Dr. Lurie said slaughtering processes in the U.S. vary widely and are not effectively regulated.

In blunt language, Dr. Lurie made it clear to the Commerce Committee that U.S. surveillance efforts to detect Mad Cow disease and its human counterpart have been inadequate. He noted that only 11,954 brains of the 40 million cows slaughtered in the U.S. had been examined in the ten-year period ending in 2000. In comparison, France is now testing 20,000 brains per week.

Dr. Lurie wants preventative measures activated including the restriction of blood donations from those with extensive histories of residence in countries with high incidence of Mad Cow. He calls for similar restrictions for cornea donors and wants regulations promulgated to prevent sourcing of materials for the production of vaccines from Mad Cow disease-affected countries. He also urges the federal government to establish a network of regional pathology centers to do brain examinations for human CJD.

In 1997 Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber published a warning that Lurie's testimony now echoes. Their book, Mad Cow USA: Could the Nightmare Happen Here? (Common Courage Press), described how corporate agribusiness was putting American consumers at risk of contracting CJD. They've now made the contents of the book available online for free.

We need tough action soon if we are to prevent Europe's experience from repeating itself in the U.S. We need to make certain that inspection is increased at the border and that the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration have the authority to issue mandatory regulations to ensure the safety of our food supply.

This may mean that the Bush Administration's aversion to regulation will have to give way to the health of citizens. However, the President, I believe, can find safe food and the prevention of disease to be consistent with his campaign pledge to be both compassionate and conservative.

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