Mad Cow USA Explosive Story in the New York Times

Stringent Steps Taken by US on Cow Illness
By Sandra Blakeslee
January 14, 2001

As panic over the spread of mad cow disease grips Western Europe,
American health officials say they have been taking stringent steps to
prevent the disease from taking hold in the United States.

The brains of sick cattle are routinely tested for the disease.
Imports of beef and certain beef products are banned. No one who
lived in Britain since the late 1980's, when the epidemic became
known, is allowed to donate blood.

"We are doing our best to not be complacent," said Dr. Linda Detiler,
a veterinarian with the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service at
the United States Department of Agriculture. Pointing out that some
European countries were sure they had no risk, but now find themselves
caught up in the epidemic, she said, "We have tried to learn from
their mistakes."

So far, they appear to succeeded. Mad cow disease and its human
analogue, the new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, have not been
found to have killed any cattle or been identified in people on this
side of the Atlantic. Given the small number of human cases in Europe
and that mad cow disease has never been proved to exist in American
cattle, most experts agree that the risk for most Americans remains
extremely low.

Yet experts on mad cow disease say that there is cause for concern.
Despite a decade-long ban on British imports of meat and bone meal - a
form of animal feed rendered from cows that is blamed for spreading
the epidemic in Europe - the United States still imports tons of
bovine byproducts and manufactured goods containing bovine materials
from Britain and other European nations.

The disease formally called bovine spongiform encephalopathy because
of the spongelike holes that appear in the brain and other nervous
tissue, can also develop spontaneously. Although mad cow has not been
detected in cattle in the United States, a related malady called
chronic wasting disease is spreading rapidly among deer and elk herds,
captive and wild, in six Western states and in Canada. In laboratory
dish experiments, chronic wasting disease has been shown to infect
human cells; in principle hunters who ate infected deer or elk meat
could have the disease and, if they donate blood, could pass it on.

At 11 Midwestern farms, scores of captive mink developed a form of mad
cow disease after being fed meat from "downer cows" - animals bred in
America that died of unknown causes, possibly cases of mad cow disease
that were never diagnosed. At various times, 45 states have had sheep
that are infected with scrapie, another malady related to mad cow

It is not known whether eating infected sheep, deer or elk causes any
form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans but the infectious agent,
misfolded proteins called prions, has been shown to cross barriers
between species.

Moreover, government officials acknowledge they are still finding and
filling gaps in the wall designed to protect the American food supply
from the disease. On Thursday, the Food and Drug Administration
reported that hundreds of feed manufacturers and rendering companies
were not complying with regulations intended to ensure the safety of
domestically produced fee.

The United States' ban on risky British meat products, adopted in 1991
and extended to imports from other countries, contains many loopholes
and exceptions that could leave the door open to infected products,
says a report by a scientific advisory panel to the European Union on
the risk of mad cow disease in America.

Missteps by European governments, too, have made the United States
more vulnerable to the disease, said Dr. Maura Ricketts of the World
Health Organization's animal-and food-related health risks unit.

Even though Britain and the United States banned the practice of
feeding cows to cows in the early 1990's some British renderers
continued to make and ship contaminated meat and bone meal around the
world while some European farmers knowingly used such products until
November because the products were cheap, Dr. Ricketts said. Public
health officials suspect that infected meat was repackaged and resold
as having come from countries presumed free of mad cow disease.

"The murky movement of live cattle and rendered animals around the
world," Dr. Ricketts said, means mad cow disease has gone global.

A few weeks ago, the United Nations estimated that at the height of
the mad cow epidemic in Britain at least 500,000 tons of untrackable
bovine byproducts were exported from Britain to Western Europe and
other nations around the world, including the United States.

British export statistics show that 20 tons of "meals of meat or
offal" that were "unfit for human consumption" and probably intended
for animals were sent to the United States in 1989. And 37 tons were
exported to the United States in 1997, well after the
government-banned imports of such risky meat. No one has tried to
trace this meat or to determine whether it was allowed into the United
States. In an exception to the import ban, many health supplements
contain glandular material from animals whose health status cannot be
determined. While acknowledging that the risk is very small, experts
on mad cow disease note that glandular material is more likely to be
infected with prions, the disease's infectious agent, than most other
tissue. Products must have labels listing ingredients like bovine
pituitaries and adrenals, but manufacturers are not required to list
the country of origin.

Other beef byproducts that are still allowed in the country include
milk, blood, fat, gelatin, tallow, bone mineral extracts, collagen,
semen, amniotic fluid, serum albumin and other parts of European
cattle that are widely used in American products, including vaccines
and medicines. The federal Agriculture Department states that these
tissues are not believed to contain dangerous levels of prions, but
acknowledges that not all have been tested to prove that they pose no

United States health officials are just now closing some of these
regulatory gaps documents posted on their Web sites say, One year ago,
the Agriculture Department told supplement manufacturers to avoid
neural and glandular material from domestic and foreign sheep flocks
infected with scrapie. Compliance is voluntary.

Although, cud-chewing animals, or ruminants, are the known carriers of
mad cow disease, the Agriculture Department last month temporarily
barred European feed supplements mad from nonruminant animals like
chickens or pigs. This is because through November, many European
farmers were still giving feed made from potentially infected cows to
chickens and pigs and were then feeding chickens and pigs back to
cows. This practice is now banned in Europe, and Agriculture
Department officials are worried that European feed manufacturers will
slash prices and try to dump their products on American farmers. In
theory, prions could be spread in this feed.

On Dec. 23, the Food and Drug Administration told American drug
manufacturers to stop using bovine serum from counties where mad cow
disease has been found for making vaccines against flu, hepatitis A
and diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus, but vaccines made from the materials
are still being used. The agency maintains these vaccines are safe.
An F.D.A. committee will meet this month to discuss extending
restrictions on who can donate blood to include people who lived in
Europe for six or more months in the 1990's. The committee is also
expected to discuss whether to ban donations from deer and elk

As potential weaknesses have emerged, the American beef industry has
become increasingly concerned, particularly about the safety of animal
feed. On Jan. 9, the F.D.A.'s Center for Veterinary Medicine held a
nationwide telephone conference with its field officers and 50 state
agencies responsible for inspecting feed producers. The agency told
the states that only about 2,700 of the estimated 9,500 feed
manufacturers had been inspected for compliance, the center's
director, Dr. Stephen Sundlof, said.

Among smaller companies that handle ruminant byproducts and wastes,
nearly half did not have a system for putting labels on their products
warning that they should not be fed to cattle or sheep, the F.D.A.
said. More than a quarter of large rendering companies that handle
risky material had no system to prevent the commingling of ruminent
wastes with that of other animals like chickens and fish.

Dr. Gary Weber, executive director of regulatory affairs for the
National Cattlemen's Beef Association said that enforcing the ban must
be a priority for President-elect George W. Bush.

Compounding officials' concerns is the baffling nature of the
infectious agent that is believed to cause these deadly diseases,
collectively known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. For
unknown reasons, a normal protein called a prion twists into an
abnormal shape, usually in the brain. These misfolded prions
accumulate into toxic clumps that eventually destroy normal brain
tissue. Spongelike holes develop. Animals and people are driven mad
and then die. Apparently, these diseases arise spontaneously in one
out of every million humans, cows, sheep and many other mammals.
Since 36 million cattle are slaughtered annually in the United States,
about 36 cows spontaneously infected with mad cow disease could be
entering the nations food chain each year.

These abnormal prions can pass from one species to another, including
humans. Prions can survive outside the body for years and are not
easily killed by freezing or cooking. No on knows the incubation
period for humans. Nor does anyone know how much is required to
transmit the disease, although evidence suggests that people can be
infected from even a few bites of tainted beef.

Those infected share a genetic trait that appears to have made them
susceptible to the disease. Eighty-eight people have died from or
have been found to have the new variant, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, in
Britain. Three people from France and one from Ireland have also

This variant has not surfaced in the United States. Dr. Pierluigi
Gambetti, director of the National Prion Disease Pathology
Surveillance Center at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland,
said he has examined tissues from 292 Americans known to have prion
diseases but non have shown the hallmarks of this variant.

But at the same time, chronic wasting disease is a growing problem,
said Hal Herring, a hunter and writer in Corvalis, Mont., who is
tracking that disease. Thirteen captive herds in the United States
have been infected and up to 18 percent of wild deer in parts of
northern Colorado and southern Wyoming are infected, Mr. Herring said.
In December, a federal agency in Canada slaughtered 1,700 domestic elk
at six Saskatchewan farms to contain an outbreak. The disease was
traced to a single animal, which never showed any signs of illness,
exported to Canada form South Dakota. No one knows how deer and elk
in the wild or in captivity pass the disease among themselves, Mr.
Herring said.

An unknown number of American sheep are infected with scrapie, which,
like mad cow disease, is a spongiform encephalopathy. It is not known
if scrapie can harm humans who eat infected sheep tissue, but last
autumn the fear of such transmission led the Agriculture Department to
quarantine and order the destruction of a herd of sheep, exported to
Vermont from Belgium. A few of the animals had been found to have
developed a spongiform encephalopathy of unknown origin. The sheep's
owners, who make cheese from the sheep mild, fought back. Lawyers
continue to argue over the fate of the remaining animals, which show
no sign of illness.

Dr. Tom Pringle, a biochemist in Eugene, Ore., and independent
researcher on transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, says American
officials have not done enough to battle the disease. He says the
United States should set up a system to track bovine material coming
into this country and increase testing. Out of 900 million cattle,
the Agriculture Department tested fewer than 12,000 sick cows for mad
cow disease in the last decade. None were found to have the disease.
France, with 5.7 million cattle, is now testing 20,000 animals each
week and identified 153 infected animals last year.

Dr. Pringle and other experts emphasize that Americans should not
panic over events in Europe. While prion diseases are frightening,
they say, the odds of coming into contact with them are extremely low
for most Americans.

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