Nation isn't doing enough to detect mad cow disease, CWRU experts say

May 6, 2001 Plain Dealer by John S. Long

Two research scientists at Case Western Reserve University say the U.S. government is not testing enough cattle to detect the presence of mad cow disease.

Compounding the problem are weaknesses in the government's ability to regulate and track animals and their feed:

Hundreds of feed mills do not have measures in place to prevent mingling of feed approved for cattle with banned animal feed, which includes the processed meat and bones of dead animals.

The U.S. government has failed to track some banned European feed and cattle that have entered the United States.

"If you don't look, you won't find," said Dr. Pierluigi Gambetti, a neuropathologist at CWRU who called the amount of cattle testing done in the United States insignificant. "Unless we test more, we will never know if we have it here. If they can do it in Europe, one would think they could do it here."

Gambetti heads the National Prion Disease Pathology Surveillance Center at CWRU, which the federal government set up to monitor a human variation of the disease.

Dr. Man-Sun Sy, an immunologist at CWRU, agreed. "Even if it were here," Sy said, "they will not find it at the current rate of testing." Sy is part of a team of the world's top disease prevention scientists developing a test that will allow cattle to be checked without being killed. The test, which is in preliminary development, would provide more information than current tests.

Mad cow, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is a disease in which abnormal protein material (scientifically called a prion protein) attacks the central nervous system of an animal and eats away at the brain.

It is always fatal. No cases of mad cow disease have been found in the United States, though it now has been confirmed in 31 other countries.

Humans can contract a number of mad cow-type diseases. One is transmitted by eating mad-cow-infected beef. It's called Variant-Creutzfeld-Jakob disease. Another, Creutzfeld-Jakob disease, is transmitted genetically or develops for reasons that scientists can't determine. A third, chronic wasting disease, comes from eating infected elk and deer. There have been a number of cases of this in the United States and Canada.

Foot-and-mouth disease, which is a communicable viral disease that infects cloven-hoofed animals, is harmless to humans, can be cured and has no relation to mad cow.

Although the United States is doing far less testing of cattle than the European Union, U.S. testing exceeds the international standard for a country with no known cases of mad cow disease, said Dr. Linda Detwiler, a senior staff veterinarian with the federal government. However, she confirmed that quarantined sheep in Vermont were infected with either mad cow or scrapie, a variation of the disease found in sheep. The sheep were euthanized and tested at a federal laboratory in Iowa in March.

"I would never argue that we couldn't do more," Detwiler said. "We can always do more with more money. We doubled the number of tests last year."

Detwiler is an Ohio State University Veterinary School graduate who began her career in Northeast Ohio. She works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and heads the USDA's cattle testing program.

Mad cow is fairly rare. Only 182,000 cases have been documented worldwide, and all but a few thousand cases have been in the United Kingdom, according to the European Union Ministry of Agriculture in Brussels, Belgium. About 100 cases of Variant-Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease have been discovered, 97 of them in England, and the remainder in France and Ireland.

Because of the disease's long incubation period - five to 20 years - scientists estimate that during that period another 140,000 cases of the human variant will occur in Great Britain.

Testing: Reasons for concern

The major concern, some say, isn't quantity of cases, however. It is potency.

Just one case of this disease can wreak havoc on a nation's economy. If there was a case in the United States, the country's $3.6 billion in annual beef exports would be halted, agricultural economists say.

An outbreak of mad cow here probably would mirror Europe's 35 percent decrease in beef consumption, said Brian Roe, an agricultural economist at OSU. As demand declined, so would the need for feed, which would hurt the price of grains and soybeans.

The potential economic impact and the scientific need to track the origins of any outbreaks are why testing is so important.

From 1990 through 2000, the United States tested fewer than 12,000 cattle for mad cow disease, and none tested positive for it. In the same period, the EU, including the United Kingdom, tested 270,000 cattle.

Every week since late last year, the EU has tested between 120,000 and 140,000 cattle for the disease.

CWRU's Gambetti acknowledges that the situation in Europe is different than it is here, but he still points to actions there that should prompt the United States to increase its testing for mad cow disease.

Last year, officials in Italy and Germany assured the public there was no mad cow disease in their countries, according to Gambetti, who added that they spoke before testing enough to know.

The Swiss thought the amount of testing throughout Europe was too low, so they began intensive testing. Their results showed that the number of infected cattle was far larger than previous tests indicated. This led the EU to mandate increased testing five months ago throughout Europe.

"Germany and Italy immediately found cases," said Gambetti. "Italy tested 50,000 to 60,000 and found 12, about one in every 5,000 - and that's not a small number.

"There is no question the U.S. is in a better position than Europe. But after seeing the example of what happened there, I believe they have to test more here. If you ignore it, it won't go away. If anything, it will increase."

The United States has what some say is the world's best defense in preventing mad cow. Detwiler is part of that. The United States does not need to test on Europe's scale, she said, because the United States took precautions as early as 1989 to prevent mad cow from entering the country.

Testing: Reasons for calm

The steps began with a ban on importation of cloven-hoofed animals from England in 1989 and a quarantine of those that already had entered the country. In 1997, the importation ban was expanded to include cloven-hoofed animals and byproducts from the European Union.

Also in the nation's favor is that animal-byproduct feed, a cause of mad cow, is used less in the United States than in Europe. Soybeans, which are abundant here but not in cooler Europe, are used as a source of protein in much of the U.S. feed, rather than the animal byproducts used in Europe.

The USDA has trained hundreds of state and federal field veterinarians throughout the country to spot and diagnose animal diseases, including mad cow, that originate in other countries. Private veterinarians have set up a network to contact state veterinary programs and the USDA if they see symptoms that mirror mad cow disease.

"Most of our testing is limited to downer cows," admitted Detwiler, referring to cattle that show signs of an impaired central nervous system.

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