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Mad Cow: Are We Still Unprepared?

The discovery this week of a third case of mad cow disease in the U.S. is renewing worries that, contrary to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's claim last summer that mad cow "is on its way out," the fatal brain illness may actually be getting a foothold in America. The new case is also raising fresh concerns that should an outbreak occur, the Agriculture Department will be unable to contain it because it has no efficient way of tracking where sick cattle picked up the disease.

In this week's case, which was discovered on an Alabama ranch, record-keeping was so poor that inspectors could not immediately determine where the diseased animal was born or raised. Inspectors did not even know the animal's age and were forced to examine its teeth to make a guess (about 10 years old, the FDA estimates). Investigators are also unsure where that cow, which was euthanized and buried after it fell sick, may have fed. This is crucial because the disease is believed to be spread in cattle feed carrying infected brain, bone or spinal tissue from other cows. Any cow that ate from the same troughs could be sick, too. According to research by New York biologist Michael Hansen, it takes less than a milligram of infected material to contract the disease. "This is a critical example of our failure to have an animal ID system," warns Jean Halloran, director of food safety at the Consumer' s Union. "We were moving toward this sytem but the USDA backed off." In 2004 the USDA proposed a mandatory national animal tagging and tracking system that would make tracing the origins and whereabouts of any cow easy, but the effort has foundered. The biggest obstacle isn't rounding up the 95 million cattle in the U.S.; it's rounding up the cattle producers. There are about 800,000 cattlemen scattered across the 50 states, and many resent tagging as an expensive and unnecessary government intrusion. Expensive is right; the cost currently runs about $100 per head. Under pressure from cattlemen, the USDA agreed to make tagging voluntary. Currently, only about 10% of the herd is traceable through the USDA's tracking system

Three cases is far from an epidemic, and there has yet to be a reported human case of the illness in the U.S., but steak and hamburger lovers worried about mad cow disease may not take comfort in the USDA's response to the Alabama case. At a press conference Monday, department chief veterinarian John Clifford announced that the USDA will go ahead with previously announced plans to scale down its mad cow testing program. "The incidence of BSE [Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathyin] this country remains extremely low and our interlocking safeguards are working to protect both human and animal health, and we remain very confident in the safety of U.S. beef," said Clifford. But Consumer Union's Halloran says increased testing is needed and describes the USDA policy as "don't look, don't find." Currently, the U.S. tests about 1% of its cattle for mad cow disease. Japan tests nearly 100% and the European Union tests all cattle over 30 months old.

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