February 27, 2001 Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO) by Lou KilzerThe General Accounting Office blasted the Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday for lax enforcement of rules intended to keep the nation free of "mad cow" disease.
The GAO, a congressional watchdog agency, said the FDA had been slow to detect firms violating restrictions on cattle feed, has used a sloppy and flawed database of meat handling firms, and inspected only 1 percent of the imported meat under its jurisdiction.
These problems and other governmental breakdowns leave the nation vulnerable to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). Dubbed "mad cow disease" after it appeared in 1986 in Great Britain, BSE has now appeared in 18 other European countries, together with Oman, Canada, the Falkland Islands and Japan. The FDA defended itself Tuesday, saying many of the problems cited have been or are being corrected.
The GAO report also said that 1,000 cattle, 23 million pounds of inedible meat byproducts and 101 million pounds of beef have been imported during the past 20 years from countries now known to have BSE-infected cattle.
The National Meat Association Tuesday said that these figures are a tiny fraction of total imports.
No cases of BSE have been detected in the United States, and a recent Harvard study said that even if cases are detected the chance of an epidemic here is slim [There are serious questions as to the Harvard study's objectivity--BSE coordinator] .
That confidence is based, in part, on a 1997 ban on the feeding of meat from cattle or other ruminants to cattle - a process that scientists believe spread the disease in Europe.
But the GAO found that many firms are not complying with rules to assure that the ban is effective. Last year, from 13 percent to 22 percent of firms were not in compliance with FDA rules. The agency has issued only 50 warning letters since 1997, and has taken no enforcement action.
"(The) FDA has not placed a priority on oversight of the feed ban," the GAO charged.
FDA Senior Associate Commissioner Dr. Murray Lumpkin said new evidence shows that only 5 percent to 10 percent of firms are out of compliance, often for simple record-keeping errors.
However, the GAO's report said the FDA's database of firms handling restricted meat is "so severely flawed that - until corrected - it should not be used to assess compliance."
Lumpkin agreed that the database has had serious problems because it was adapted from one being used for other purposes when the feed ban went into effect. "We had to use the system we had," Lumpkin said. However, he said, a new system will come online on April 15.
Lumpkin defended the FDA's enforcement actions by saying the agency first wanted to educate the industry, not hammer it. He said the FDA is now geared up to be more aggressive.
He said it is in the interest of meat handling companies to be resolute in guarding the $56 billion industry. "It is they who will suffer if we ever have BSE in the United States," Lumpkin said.
Scientists and government officials in Great Britain assured the public that the inevitably fatal disease believed caused by a deformed protein could not jump from cattle to humans. But in 1996, chagrined officials announced that in 10 cases it had.
To date, 121 people have contracted the disease, 106 of them in Great Britain. Only a few remain alive.
The "mad cow" scare decimated the cattle industry in Great Britain, where over 4.5 million cows were slaughtered to try to contain the epidemic. A few cases in cattle in Japan - thought to have been caused by cattle feed imported from England - have slashed meat consumption and sparked a government scandal.
The GAO report also faulted the U.S. Department of Agriculture for not testing more cattle for evidence of BSE. In Europe, over 5 million cow brains have been examined for BSE, while in America only about 20,000. [Europe has less than half the cattle we do, and last year alone tested over 7 million cattle for mad cow disease. That's compared to our 5000 last year. You can't find what you're not looking hard enough for--BSE coordinator] A disease in the same class as BSE, chronic wasting disease, afflicts free-ranging deer and elk in northeastern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming. New cases in deer have recently been detected in Nebraska and South Dakota as well as in ranched elk herds in several states and Canada.
Scientists say there is no evidence that CWD can infect humans [There is evidence that CWD prions can infect human brain tissue--BSE coordinator].
NOTES: Contact Lou Kilzer at (303) 892-2644 or kilzerl@RockyMountainNews.com.
[To read the entire text of the GAO report Mad Cow Disease: Improvements in the Animal Feed Ban and Other Regulatory Areas Would Strengthen U.S. Prevention Efforts, or order a free printed copy, go to http://www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-02-183--BSE coordinator]