Worries of cow disease surface

Worries of cow disease surface

June 2, 2001 Deseret News by Will Bettmann

As barbecue season commences, Americans can go to their grills without the fear of mad cow-related disease faced by Europeans. Or can they?

So far, no cases of mad cow have ever been reported in the United States, but cattle-feed producers across the country have failed to meet federal standards designed to prevent the disease from entering the food chain.

Nine of Utah's 28 cattle-feed producers failed at least one part of an ongoing inspection by the federal government that checks compliance with rules enacted by the Food and Drug Administration in 1997, according to a database posted by the Center for Veterinary Medicine, a division of the FDA.

Dr. Mike Marshall, Utah state veterinarian, said there were no major violations among Utah firms and that most problems identified in initial inspections were quickly corrected.

Scientists have determined that the mad cow outbreak in England was probably caused when the remains of diseased cows (called rendered remains) were fed to other cows as supplemental protein. Europeans have now banned the feeding of all animal remains to cattle.

In 1997, the FDA issued rules that banned the feeding of rendered cattle or other ruminant (cud-chewing, multi-stomached) animals to cattle.

However, two major concerns remain. FDA inspections indicate that many feed producers are not fully complying with the new rules, and the FDA has not yet imposed fines or sanctions. Also, loopholes remain in the FDA rules.

For example, non-ruminant animals, such as pigs and chickens, are still fed the rendered remains of cattle, and those non-ruminant animals could then be fed to cattle, leaving a line of potential contamination open.

Humans who eat cattle infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (known as BSE or mad cow disease) can develop "new variation" Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (nvCJD), which, like AIDS, is considered to be 100 percent fatal. About 80 people in England and a handful of other Europeans have contracted nvCJD, but many others may already be infected since the incubation period is believed to be up to eight years or possibly longer.

Ron Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, said that the U.S. government is not really looking for mad cow disease because it does not want to find it.

"The U.S. government is currently using second-rate tests. They (the tests) are good for confirming positive results but not for detecting them. Also, we aren't testing enough. Germany is currently testing 20,000 cows a week for BSE, and we've tested 12,000 since 1989," Cummins said.

According to veterinarian Marshall, every cow that shows signs of central nervous system problems is tested.

"We've never shown a single case of BSE in this country," Marshall said. "We test every single animal that has any type of clinical central nervous system problems. Every vet in the U.S. knows about this problem and is on the lookout."

Mad cow disease was first noticed in England in 1985, but most Americans weren't aware of the disease until 1996 when the British government announced that the disease seemed to be passing from cattle to humans, something it had denied was possible up until then.

BSE is part of a larger class of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs). Deer and elk can be infected with a TSE known as chronic wasting disease (CWD); sheep can be infected by a TSE known as "scrapie." In all species the symptoms are similar- progressive destruction of brains cells, which leads to disorientation, dementia and death.

In parts of Colorado and Wyoming, deer and elk herds harbor CWD, with up to 8 percent of certain deer herds infected in places. As a result, wildlife officials have urged hunters to take safety precautions such as wearing rubber gloves when dressing animals.

Utah hunter Doug McEwen was one of three hunters who died of nvCJD in 1999, although no conclusive link has been established between hunting and nvCJD.

In April, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, co-sponsored a bill that would bring agriculture, health and safety officials together to make sure the United States is doing everything it can to prevent BSE and foot-and-mouth disease from entering the country.

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