Prevention Bill Strikes Bipartisan Support in Congress

April 6, 2001 The Salt Lake Tribune by Shawn Foster

Sometimes it takes the threat of pestilence or war to bring Republicans and Democrats together. This time it appears to be disease's turn.

U.S. lawmakers from both sides of the aisle seem ready to agree on a bill sponsored by Utah's Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, that would require federal agencies to research ways to prevent mad cow disease from reaching America's shores.

"This bill is about getting the facts out to the American public about the potential risks of both mad cow disease and foot-and-mouth disease as soon as possible," Hatch said. "Once we have all the facts, we will be in better position to plan the best methods for keeping these diseases out of the country. The bottom line is that we want to ensure that the U.S. food supply is safe."

Mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, first appeared in England.

It soon became clear that the malady could be transmitted to humans, as new-variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. The disease, which introduces collapsing proteins into an organism, eventually creating spongy islands around the brain, has killed 90 people in Britain since 1996.

Hatch's bill would also require the Department of Agriculture to coordinate federal efforts to prevent an outbreak of the unrelated hoof-and-mouth disease. That virus strikes cloven-hoofed animals and is spread by infected animals or other carriers, including humans. It is not harmful to people and has been absent from the United States since 1929.

Mad cow disease has never appeared in the United States, but the European outbreak has ranchers, consumer advocates and animal researchers worried.

Experts at Utah State University, the state's land grant university specializing in animal and agricultural sciences, are keeping tabs on the progress of both diseases in Europe.

In the past decade, laboratory technicians have examined 10,000 cows [Meanwhile Germany is testing 20,000 cows a week , France is up to 20,000 a week; the US is doing maybe 50 a week. You can't find what you're not looking hard enough for--BSE coordinator], said Clell Bagley, a USU veterinarian who works on animal health issues. But more needs to be done, scientists say.

Bagley applauds Hatch's efforts to better fund investigation of the disease.

"It is about time our government wakes up and realizes the seriousness of these diseases," Bagley said. "Those who have done research have made some heroic efforts. It would help if they didn't have to spend so much research time searching for grants."

But better research is only one of Bagley's concerns.

He and others fear lax regulation of nutritional supplements, some of which contain bovine tissues suspected of harboring mad cow disease.

Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration asked nutritional supplement makers to identify the source of bovine-derived products, which are not covered by the regulations that protect Americans from infected beef.

Trade groups representing the industry said they have not been able to trace the source of every product and may not be able to do so. Supplement makers are not required, as drug companies are, to maintain records on ingredient sources or meet federal manufacturing standards.

Mad cow disease has not been linked to dietary supplements. Industry officials consider the possibility of contracting the disease through supplements remote.

But some experts such as Bagley are not convinced.

"It's a wide-open loophole," Bagley said. "It opens the door for disease to enter the United States."

It was Hatch who sponsored the 1994 legislation that limited the FDA's authority to regulate nutritional supplements.

At the time, Hatch was criticized for sponsoring the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act because he owned 71,843 shares of stock worth up to $ 50,000 in a Utah real estate company and vitamin wholesale distributor.

But a Hatch spokesman said the issue will be resolved by the research the state's senior senator is asking for.

"There is a concern that some dietary supplements could contain cow products from overseas and that there could be some danger," said spokesman Christopher Rosche. "The study will address that. They will be looking at everything from hamburger to dietary supplements."

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