Could mad cow strike U.S.? Government says it has taken needed precautions, but others worry disease is already here

Could mad cow strike U.S.?
Government says it has taken needed precautions, but others worry disease is already here

June 3, 2001 Beacon Journal by Mary Ethridge, Jane Snow and Tracy Wheeler

First comes the pain and crying. Then the hallucinations and screaming. As the fatal disease progresses, the victim loses all motion and all reason. The brain becomes riddled with holes.

When death comes, it is a blessing.

And scientists believe this lethal new disease is contracted by doing something incredibly ordinary -- eating beef.

``This is as scary as it gets,'' said Phillip Nabors, owner of Mustard Seed Market, a health food store in Bath Township. ``You don't want to think such a thing could happen in the United States.''

So far, it hasn't. But that doesn't mean it won't.

Variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease (vCJD) has been linked to eating beef from cattle infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy -- mad cow disease. To keep mad cow out of the United States, federal officials in 1997 banned the practice of adding to cattle feed protein supplements made from dead ruminant animals -- animals with four stomachs -- such as cows, sheep, goats and deer.

But it's highly likely that these protein supplements are getting into U.S. cattle feed, because enforcement of the ban has been slow.

``The FDA recognizes that as our greatest area of vulnerability,'' Stephen Sundlof, director of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine, told the Akron Beacon Journal.

And there are other weaknesses in the fire wall the United States has built to stop mad cow from getting to this country and infecting beef eaters with vCJD:

-- Cow brains, which, along with retina and spinal-cord tissue, are thought to be the most infectious parts of tainted animals, are still sold for human consumption in this country.

-- Techniques used at U.S. slaughterhouses fail to prevent spinal-cord tissue from contaminating equipment and then being mixed with ground meat.

-- Pigs are exempted from the feed ban and are allowed to eat meat and bone meal made from dead cows and from sheep infected with scrapie, a disease related to mad cow. These dead pigs can then be turned into protein supplements that can be fed to cattle.

-- Calves are allowed to eat feed sprayed with dried cattle blood. Although scientists have no evidence that the mutated proteins -- the hallmarks of mad cow and vCJD -- can be transmitted through blood, the possibility has prompted restrictions on human blood donors.

-- Nutritional supplements can still be made from cow parts. Although the FDA has asked manufacturers not to use materials from countries where mad cow has been found, the agency has not banned the practice.

-- Only a tiny number of cattle slaughtered in the United States are tested for mad cow -- not enough for experts to be certain that the disease is not here.

Mad cow has sent beef sales in Europe plunging, and some Americans are wondering whether they, too, should give up their beloved hamburgers.

Not at all, say U.S. government officials, who stress that not one case of mad cow disease has been found in this country. Even in Britain, where mad cow is most prevalent, the chance of a serving of meat being contaminated with the rare neurological disease is estimated at one in 10 billion, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Scott C. Ratzan, editor of the Journal of Health Communication and a faculty member of the George Washington School of Public Health, puts it bluntly. Ratzan says the theoretical threat of mad cow or vCJD to the United States is being ``blown out of proportion'' and facts are getting lost in a frenzy of irrational fear.

``The same person who says they won't eat red meat probably jumps in their car, smokes a cigarette and doesn't put on their seat belt,'' Ratzan said.

But consumer advocates paint another picture. They say the government has moved too slowly, and they suggest that mad cow may already be in the United States, silently incubating.

Could that be the case?

``There's no good way of being absolutely sure about that,'' Sundlof admitted.

Spreading across Europe

Mad cow disease, the scourge of Europe, has spread to 16 countries, including across the Atlantic to Canada. It has decimated the European cattle industry and left 91 people -- 87 in Britain, three in France and one in Ireland -- dead.

It was first identified as a new and deadly disease in 1986 when farmers in far-flung hamlets in Britain noticed that some of their cows were acting strangely -- drooling, losing weight, stumbling and eventually becoming aggressive toward other members of the herd. The wild behavior always ended in death.

At the height of Britain's mad cow crisis in January 1993, new cases among cattle were being reported at the rate of 1,000 per week. More than 180,000 head of cattle in Great Britain have been stricken.

The cause of this strange disease was a mystery until 1989, when scientists linked feeding practices to its spread. Although research continues into other possible forms of transmission, such as infection from contaminated soil, it is believed that most cases of mad cow worldwide can be traced to feeding cattle meat and bone meal as a protein supplement.

In 1996, researchers at the Institute for Animal Health in Edinburgh, Scotland, presented evidence linking vCJD to eating meat from cattle infected with mad cow disease.

Creutzfeldt-Jakob (pronounced ``krootz-feld yah-kub'') disease had been around for a long time, but it afflicted mostly older people, aged 50 to 75. The new variant mimicked the symptoms of Creutzfeldt-Jakob, but its victims were as young as 20.

Both mad cow and CreutzfeldtJakob are transmissible spongiform encephalopathies -- diseases in which abnormally shaped proteins called prions ravage the brain and the body's central nervous system.

Protein feed made from dead British cattle was not formally banned in Europe until October. By then, the damage had been done. Although the cases of mad cow disease slowed to 1,500 in Britain last year, the disease had spread to other countries.

New laws enacted

As discoveries about mad cow were being made in Europe, U.S. officials moved to try to block the disease.

In 1989, the importation from Britain of live cows, feed made from ruminant animals and beef products was banned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The following year, the USDA began destroying and testing cattle that showed signs of neurological problems.

A USDA ban on importing live cows, sheep and goats and on importing ruminant feed was expanded to a ban on such imports from most European countries in 1997. But that feed ban may have come too late. U.S. cattle that ate imported feed may be alive today and infected, because symptoms of mad cow do not appear for two to eight years.

Also in 1997, the FDA issued new rules prohibiting protein supplements made from dead cows and sheep from being added to cattle feed in the United States.

To enforce that protein supplement ban, the FDA launched an inspection of U.S. feed lots, dairy farms, feed mills and rendering plants, which produce fat and protein slurry from dead animals. The agency also began a nationwide education program for state livestock inspectors and the beef industry.

The practice of rendering animals appears to be at the heart of the spread of mad cow. In 1980, the British rendering industry banned the use of certain chemicals and lowered the cooking temperature used in the process. It is thought that these two shifts in procedure allowed mad cow disease to flourish undetected.

During rendering, carcasses that have been stripped of their edible parts are ground up and then decomposed in large vats by boiling under extremely high pressure. The process produces a slurry of protein under a layer of fat called tallow. That slurry is dried into a meat and bone meal product.

After four years of inspections, a number of U.S. feed mills and renderers still aren't in full compliance with the FDA rules.

As recently as a month ago, the FDA was sending warning letters to Ohio renderers and feed mills about violations. Some companies were making both ruminant and nonruminant products in the same vats without washing them in between, according to the FDA letters. Other companies weren't bothering to affix warning labels to their ruminant feed as the law requires.

The FDA estimates that since the ban on adding ruminant protein to cattle feed was instituted, 10,489 mills and renderers nationwide have been visited by inspectors. Most of the 834 firms that failed the initial inspections have been revisited, and according to the FDA, all but 40 of them eventually passed.

In Ohio, 475 rendering plants and feed mills have been inspected since 1998, and 138, or 29 percent, were found not to be in compliance with some aspect of the ban, according to FDA records.

However, many firms have not been inspected. The FDA estimates that 300 licensed and 2,000 legal unlicensed renderers and feed mills still have to be visited.

``We have to make the assumption that some cattle may be getting ruminant meat and bone meal,'' said the FDA's Sundlof.

Cows fed by mistake

In at least one instance, ruminant protein did get into U.S. cattle feed. In January, Purina Mills of Texas announced that some ruminant feed was mistakenly fed to 1,200 cows. Purina agreed to buy all the affected cattle and then destroy them.

The potential for this type of problem, consumer activists say, points out the need for FDA regulations to be expanded. They want a complete ban on animal byproducts in feed for food animals -- and not just because of possible mistakes such as the one Purina made.

``Our view is, so far, we appear to be lucky,'' said Jean Halloran, director of the Consumer Policy Institute, the consumer lobbying arm of New York publisher Consumers Union. ``In our opinion, we don't want to rely on luck for the future.''

The FDA feed ban applies only to ruminants. Protein supplements made from those animals can't be put into feed for those animals.

But protein supplements made from ruminants can be added to feed for other animals, such as pigs. And pigs can be made into protein supplements for cattle feed.

Halloran said pigs should not be allowed to eat protein supplements made from sheep infected with scrapie and from deer and elk that have died from chronic wasting disease -- two mad cow-like disorders that are in the United States.

``We allow the pigs to be fed back to cows,'' she said.

Although mad cow disease has not been found in pigs in Europe, one study has shown that pigs are capable of contracting the disease.

In this National Institutes of Health study referred to by Halloran, 10 pigs received injections of highly infectious material directly into the brain and stomach. Only one pig developed a neurological disease.

But the FDA's Sundlof said the government is not considering adding swine to the feed ban.

``There's no natural case of a pig ever getting a TSE,'' or transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, Sundlof said.

Halloran also is worried about dried cattle blood being exempted from the feed rule. Calves are commonly fed dried blood as a protein supplement.

``We say that people who have lived in Britain can't donate blood,'' Halloran said. ``But when it comes to animal feed, it's OK.''

In response to criticism, the FDA is rethinking some of its cattle-feed regulations.

The agency is seeking public input on whether dried-blood supplements should be fed to calves, on whether discarded food from restaurants should be fed to cattle, and on whether all feed mills and renderers should be licensed by the FDA.

``We're going to look at the entire scope of the (feed ban) rule and determine if there are other areas that need to be firmed up,'' Sundlof said.

But new rules take time to enact. Once they're proposed, getting them in place will take a minimum of a year, said Dan McChesney, director of the FDA's Office of Surveillance and Compliance.

In the past few years, government officials have been working with the meat industry to prevent brain tissue from cows from mingling with meat that goes to consumers. Yet consumers are still able to buy cow brains for sauteing or making into sandwiches.

``We've gone above and beyond what anyone has asked us to do,'' said Janet Riley of the American Meat Institute, a trade group that represents slaughterers, ``and yet you can still buy brains in this country.''

Selling beef brains is legal because mad cow disease has not been found in any animal in the United States, said Paul Brown, senior researcher at the Center for Central Nervous System Disorders at the National Institutes of Health.

``If mad cow were here, those people would be dead,'' Brown said.

Or at least dying. According to researchers, vCJD has an incubation period of 10 to 20 years before symptoms appear.

Voluntary changes

Despite inconsistency in government policy, Riley said the meat industry has moved ahead in making voluntary changes in slaughtering techniques.

In 1998, the meat industry stopped using air guns to kill cattle, Riley said. These guns shot bolts into the cow's head, spewing brain tissue that potentially contaminated meat and equipment. In a recent survey of its members, Riley said, the Meat Institute found that all respondents had stopped using the guns.

But Carolyn Smith De Waal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.-based consumer lobbying group, said slaughtering techniques need to be tightened further to prevent mixing brain and spinal-cord tissue with beef that will go to consumers.

The center plans to petition the USDA to ban the use of the Advanced Meat Recovery Machine, a piece of slaughterhouse equipment that strips meat from cattle carcasses.

Riley said that in 1998, at the order of the USDA, meat institute members began removing the spinal cords from cows before they were processed in the meat recovery machine.

But De Waal said enforcement of this order is lax and the procedure is imperfect. Tests have shown that spinal-cord tissue is still present in some ground meat, De Waal said.

``We still need more protections to prevent mad cow disease from entering the human food supply,'' De Waal said.

Americans can also ingest cow organs and tissue by taking nutritional supplements. The bovine extracts can be used in the gelatin surrounding the capsule or, as in the case of glandular supplements, they can be the main ingredient. Although the FDA asked supplement manufacturers in 1994 not to use bovine material from countries where mad cow is found, it has not banned the practice. And the FDA has not suggested to supplement manufacturers that they refrain from using tissue or organs from U.S cattle in their products.

More testing urged

Although government officials repeatedly stress that mad cow disease is not present in the United States, others aren't nearly so sure.

The Consumer Policy Institute's Halloran said more cattle need to be tested for the disease.

Although the USDA initiated a testing program in 1990, only cattle with obvious symptoms of neurological disease have been targeted -- and not all of them are tested, she said. Live animals cannot be tested; the only way to detect mad cow is to examine slices of the dead animal's brain.

``We don't have adequate surveillance of cattle to say conclusively that there's no problem here,'' she said.

Pierluigi Gambetti, director of the National Prion Pathology Surveillance Center at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, agrees.

Of the 37 million cattle slaughtered in the United States each year, an average of just 1,000 have been tested, Gambetti said. This year, 2,600 cattle are scheduled for testing.

``That's just too small,'' Gambetti said. ``The only way to lessen the panic is to do more testing. . . . There's always less concern when you know the size. When you know the size of the problem, you now have the ability to put together a plan, a remedy.''

In the meantime, some feed mills and renderers remain uninspected. Protein supplement made from pigs is being fed to cattle. So is cow blood. People are eating cow brains and meat with spinal cord tissue in it. Medical supplements made from European cattle are sitting on store shelves.

But some products, such as Danish corned beef and French beef stocks, are no longer in stores. And this spring, the CDC began advising travelers to Europe who are worried about mad cow disease to avoid beef or to stick to whole-muscle cuts such as roasts.

Government officials say Americans should have no concerns about eating U.S. beef. Still, some people are beginning to worry.

``Absolutely, there's concern about it,'' said Nabors of Mustard Seed Market.

Sales of vegetarian-raised beef at his Bath Township and Solon stores have taken off, he said.

``We're not Old McDonald's little farm anymore,'' Nabors said. ``It's a big industrial process, and consequently we're more vulnerable to these kinds of outbreaks.''

Beacon Journal medical writer Tracy Wheeler contributed to this report.

Jane Snow is the Beacon Journal's food writer. She can be reached at 330-996-3571 or up for Jane's free weekly e-mail newsletter at

Mary Ethridge can be reached at 330-996-3545 or

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