U.S. Mad Cow Risk Is Low, A Study by Harvard Finds

December 1, 2001 The New York Times by Elizabeth Becker
The Agriculture Department released a study today that found that there is very little risk that American cattle will contract mad cow disease or that the disease would ever pose a public health problem for people.

Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman praised the results of the study, which her department commissioned, saying it showed that the current controls on imports and surveillance of herds were working. The study confirmed that the prime defense against the introduction and spread of the disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or B.S.E., was a ban on meat and bone meal used to feed cattle.

Ms. Veneman said the government would bolster programs to ensure that mad cow did not enter the country, saying, "We cannot let down our guard or reduce our vigilance."

The three-year study, by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, was greeted with relief by the beef and meat industries. But some scientists questioned its results, particularly because it was based on risk models, and not extensive testing.

Dr. John Collinge, a neurologist at University College in London who is a British expert on the disease, said the United States was making a big mistake by refusing to test cattle herds. "Every country in Europe went through a phase of denying they had a problem," Dr. Collinge said. "After mandatory testing was introduced last year, countries that denied it vehemently discovered that they did have the disease."

The United States has tested 12,000 head of cattle out of a population of 100 million. Europe has tested five million. Ms. Veneman said that she would increase testing American herds and that next year 12,500 head would be tested.

B.S.E., a brain-wasting disease, was found in British cattle in the

1980's and has spread throughout Europe and, most recently, to Japan, which today announced its third case. The human analogue, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, has been tied to the deaths of more than 100 Europeans, mostly in Britain.

Mad cow disease has never been detected in cattle in North America.

The Harvard researchers based their 550-page report on reviews of American and European programs, data on the course of the disease through Europe and surveys of meat processing in the United States. The study credited early import bans on animals, meat and certain animal feed for preventing the disease from crossing the Atlantic.

"Mad cow disease is very unlikely to become a major animal or public health problem in the United States," said Dr. George M. Gray, who led the research team.

"This gives consumers and cattle producers the assurance of the safety of the American beef supply," said Charles Schroeder, head of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

But American and European scientists questioned why the study was conducted by the Harvard center, which has been criticized for receiving research money from industries under study.

Dr. Thomas Pringle, a biochemist in Eugene, Ore., and an expert on mad cow, said the researchers were taking official data at face value. He said it was unclear how much banned British animal feed had been imported here after rebagging and mislabeling.

Japanese officials thought that their country was free of the disease based on similar sets of presumptions, he said. This year, a cow died of B.S.E. and started a panic that has cut beef consumption.

"Testing is no more expensive than paying for a risk-analysis test, and it is the only true way to find out if your herds have the disease," Dr. Pringle said. "But let's face it, no country wants to find the disease."

The president of the American Meat Institute, J. Patrick Boyle, said the study reflected the $50 billion meat industry's safety. "America's B.S.E.-free status is not luck," Mr. Boyle said. "The U.S. is free of many animal diseases that plague other nations, testaments to the success of government-industry efforts." http://www.nytimes.com

[The downplay of risk of mad cow disease in the recently-released Harvard Center for Risk Analysis report "Evaluation of the Potential for Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy in the United States"] is not surprising, given the Center's well-established allegiance to the corporate agenda. Over the past decade, the Center has received unrestricted funding from 100 major industrial corporations and corporate trade associations. As revealed in Public Citizen's March, 2001 report "Safeguards At Risk"] , the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis has a rich history of flawed research, lending a "scientific" veneer to corporate efforts to roll back public health and safety standards. This mad cow report is no exception.

The world of prion research lost one of the most respected members of it's community recently, Dr. C.J. Gibbs. He was the chief of the National Institute of Health brain studies laboratory. World-renowned expert who 's been doing research into this area for 20 years and who actually chaired the World Health Organization investigation into BSE. He was asked if he thought we had mad cow disease here in the United States. "Do I believe BSE is here?" He replied. "Of course I do." Then there's Stanley Prusiner, the scientist who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discovery of prions. He also thinks BSE must be in the United States. The reason that two of the most prominent prion researchers in the U.S. believe we already have mad cow disease in this country is that it's thought that a certain tiny percentage of cows naturally develop the disease.

No one knows at what rate cattle spontaneously develop mad cow disease. If it's like Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), a similar disease that seems to spontaneously develop in humans, one in a million cattle may come down with the disease every year. Annually, we slaughter about 36 million cattle, so that means we might have as many as 36 mad cows entering the food chain in the United States every year. To fit into their simulation model, the authors of the report presume that if the disease were to arise in cattle it would have the same age-structured susceptibility as human CJD--presuming that because CJD almost exclusively strikes elderly humans, that a spontaneous form of mad cow disease would follow the same rules and only attack elderly cows. There is no evidence to support that presumption. If it's wrong, their simulation model could seriously underestimate the risk to the American population.

Beyond the speculation that 1 in a million cows in the US get it spontaneously, there is some circumstantial evidence that suggests that there is at least a very rare form of BSE already here in the United States. Richard Marsh who also is now deceased, was Chairman of the Department of Veterinary Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A year before BSE was even reported in Britain he was alerting dairy practitioners of the possibility that a, "previously unrecognized scrapie-like disease in cattle" existed in the United States" based on an outbreak of a mad-cow like disease among mink on a fur farm whose diet consisted almost exclusively of American dairy cattle. The report downplays this evidence, stating that "there is no consensus over the source of disease initiating these outbreaks."

The report's assertion that BSE is extremely unlikely to become established in the U.S. even if it does arise spontaneously is based primarily on their confidence in the 1997 FDA feed ban, which basically sought to ban the feeding the remains of cows and sheep to cows and sheep. Unfortunately, as revealed by an FDA national survey of rendering plants and feed mills earlier this year, even now 4 years after the ban supposedly was put in place their is still widespread noncompliance. Even if it were properly enforced, there are major loopholes, such as the feeding of potentially infectious meat and bone meal to chickens and then feeding the chicken litter (manure) back to cows. Europe has forbidden feeding any animals to livestock; the United States should do the same. The American Feed Industry Association has called such a ban a radical proposition. The American Meat Institute also has disagreed stating, "[n]o good is accomplished by...prejudicing segments of society against the meat industry."

The third deficiency in US policy--after poor enforcement and major loopholes is the lack of adequate testing of US herds. It is irresponsible to assert that we have no mad cow disease in the United States when we simply haven't looked hard enough to tell.

Neuropathologist Pierluigi Gambetti heads the National Prion Disease Pathology Surveillance Center at Case Western Reserve University. "If you don't look, you won't find," says Dr. Gambetti, "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." He is referring to the fact that every week in Europe they test ten times as many cattle than we have tested in a decade.

Over the last ten years, 13,000 cattle have been tested for the disease in the United States, but that's out of the 350 million slaughtered over that time. Countries like Ireland test more than twice as many cows in one night as the U.S. tests in an entire year. France has one fifth of the number of cows but they're inspecting 36,000 cows a week. If the U.S. has as high an incidence of mad cow disease as France, for example, the current USDA testing program would not detect it.

Germany is testing 20,000 cattle a week compared to our 50 a week. Germany also once confidently declared themselves BSE free. But when they actually started looking intently, they found over 30 cases within two months . The USDA promises to try to increase its testing to 5,000 cattle a year. This is inadequate; Europe has already tested a million cattle for the disease. You can't find what you're not looking hard enough for.

Texas A and M researcher Tam Garland describes the number of tests as "phenomenally small." She's not surprised that suspect animals haven't been all reported. "As a rancher," she says, "you're not going to haul a vet out onto the range to look at a dying animal, only to get fingered by your neighbors as the cause of plummeting beef prices." A few months ago spokesperson for the USDA said "If we get BSE in this country, our cattle industry goes down the tubes." Ranchers don't want that.

We're also using a slower, more expensive, more ambiguous test than used throughout Europe. The immunohistochemistry test used predominantly in the US depends on the quality of the brain tissue obtained and requires accurate interpretation by a trained technician. The rapid testing techniques in Europe which take hours instead of days--allowing a cow to be tested before she enters the food supply--do not depend on tissue preservation and are less subjective.

If the US government and the American cattle industry is somehow so sure that we don't have mad cow disease in this country, why don't they adequately test for it? As Dr. Gambetti says, "If you ignore it, it won't go away. If anything, it will increase." That's where the USDA should be putting it's energies, instead of trying to whitewash the issue with a contrived simulation.--BSE coordinator]

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