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BSE slips through the firewall

by Jim Goodman
farmer from Wonewoc, Wisconsin

(Sunday, Jan. 4, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- In January of 2003 USDA issued a press release announcing the progress it had made on implementing preventative measures aimed at keeping bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) out of the United States. The BSE prevention program included testing of 20,000 cattle for BSE in 2002: banning imports of live ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats) and most ruminant products from countries at risk for having BSE; banning the use of most rendered mammalian protein in ruminant feed and prohibiting the use of vertebral columns from certain categories of cattle. Note: most, certain--- loopholes.

It didnít work, just prior to Christmas the first case of BSE was diagnosed in a dairy cow in Washington. Despite assurances that the US has the safest food supply in the world, the devil is found in the regulatory details. The US tested 20,000 cattle last year from a group of "high risk" downer cattle, mostly old dairy cows too sick or injured to stand. Of the 35 million cattle slaughtered in the US last year about 200,000 were classified as downers, so the testing program was looking at a very small subset of the total cattle herd. If downer cows were the only animals that could be infected with BSE some might consider the testing program adequate. From the BSE outbreak in England in the 1980ís we know that seemingly healthy cattle, even young cattle, which show no outward signs of BSE, can still be incubating the disease and pass infective prions (the causative agent) on to beef consumers. Most US cattle are, by world standards "young" when slaughtered, steers around 12 months and cull dairy cows an average of around 4 years. Generally, clinical symptoms of BSE are seen at 4-5 years, so most of the US beef herd is slaughtered prior to reaching an age when they would be showing the physical symptoms that might classify them as high risk.

USDA officials maintain that the testing system is not a food safety measure designed to keep contaminated meat out of the food system, but rather a monitoring system. As a monitoring system, it did work, but did it work well enough and soon enough? Were any of the "low risk" animals slaughtered ever tested? How much potentially contaminated meat went into stores, restaurants and school lunches? The EU tests one out of every four animals slaughtered, Japan tests every animal slaughtered. If our testing approached those numbers instead of one out of every 1,750 slaughtered, what might we have found? If you want to find something you really need to seriously look for it.

When the FDA banned the use of most mammalian protein in cattle feed, it was little more than a symbolic gesture. Fat and blood from cattle could still be fed to cattle, and often, they are the main ingredients in protein supplements for calves. Calf milk replacers often contain dried bovine blood plasma, a reason for concern, as there is experimental proof that prions can be transmitted through blood. Over 300 feed manufactures have been found in violation of the 1997 feed ban for failing to guarantee that ruminant protein is kept out of cattle feed. So how many cattle have been fed parts of other potentially infected cattle? Pigs and poultry can be fed ruminant protein and cattle can be fed the remains of pigs and poultry. Another unsavory practice allows the feeding of poultry manure directly to cattle. Is undigested ruminant protein being fed directly to cattle through this practice?

Although vertebral columns from certain categories of cattle may be prohibited from entering the food chain, anyone who has witnessed the slaughter process knows that the routine procedure of splitting a carcass causes spinal tissue fragments to be deposited on the muscle cuts. One need only look at a T-bone steak to occasionally find a section of spinal cord clinging to the bone.

The cow identified as having BSE in Washington may have been imported from Canada, which indicates the 1989 ban on importing live animals form BSE suspect countries did little good as we have apparently imported a BSE infected animal from what was a non-suspect country. Although we stopped importing ruminant byproduct from England in 1989, we imported and fed significant amounts prior to that ban and still feed significant amounts of animal protein, both ruminant and non-ruminant to the US cattle herd.

Will we allow the USDA and the beef industry to downplay the human safety risks of BSE in our food system as the British government and beef industry did for over a decade, or will we demand immediate action to close regulatory loopholes, institute effective animal identification and tracking procedures, ban the feeding of all animal byproducts to food animals and immediately increase the level of BSE testing on all classes of slaughter cattle?

As a farmer I know these steps are possible without adversely affecting the incomes of farmers or meat processors, nor would they drastically raise the consumer price of beef. Back in the 1960ís Ford motor company introduced the Ford Pinto, knowing that if involved in a rear end collision, the gas tank could rupture and cause serious injury or death to the carís occupants. Top management decided against correcting the flaw as it was projected to add an extra $11.00 to the cost of each car. Ford had worked out the statistics of how many people would die, assigned values to human life and concluded it wasnít cost effective. The US government, heavily influenced by lobbyists from Ford did not pass legislation that would have mandated a redesign of the Pinto. Does anyone look back on the eventual recall of the Pinto and say it should have been allowed to stay on the road? Hundreds of deaths that could have been prevented, lives forfeit in the name of industry profit, a lesson from history. Do the British look back on their eventual adoption of pro-active beef safety measures and say it should not have been done? Hardly.

The value of human lives must be placed above the profits of the beef industry. Newer cheaper prion detection tests would reportedly raise the price of a pound of beef by two to three cents. Instead of limiting testing to 20,000 animals per year we need to quickly achieve the level of testing that exists in the EU or Japan.

See related stories below:

9 cows linked to Mad Cow inquiry have been found Denise Grady, NY Times, 01/01/04: The Agriculture Department said on Wednesday that it had found some of the 81 cows thought to have been shipped to the United States from Canada with a cow that turned out to have the first case of mad cow disease seen in the United States.

Nine of the cows are still on the farm in Mabton, Wash., where the infected cow had lived.

"And we have good leads on all of the remaining animals," said Dr. Ron DeHaven, chief veterinary officer for the Agriculture Department. So far, Dr. DeHaven said, the leads have all been to farms in Washington, but the tracking is not finished.

It is important to trace the other animals in case they, too, are infected, so that they can be kept out of the meat supply. The infected cow is thought to have contracted the disease from contaminated feed, and animals raised with it might have eaten the same feed.

DNA test results on the infected cow should be available next week, and comparing them with results of animals thought to be its relatives in Canada should help determine the infected cow's origin.

At that point, Dr. DeHaven said, officials can decide whether to test the nine cows in Mabton. Live animals cannot be tested because brain tissue is required, and so they will have to be killed if tests are needed.

As a result of the Washington case, the number of cows tested for the disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, in the United States is expected to double in 2004, to 40,000 a year from 20,000, a spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department said. As in the past, three-quarters of the cows tested will be cows that because of illness or injury cannot walk, or downer cows.

The rest will be animals considered to have the highest risk of the disease, those more than 30 months old and those with signs of nervous system disorders.

That number is only a tiny fraction of the 35 million cows slaughtered each year. But Dr. DeHaven said that so far, the government had no plans to test every cow, as some other countries do. He said such testing was not necessary because mad cow disease was so rare in the United States. The current testing program is not meant to insure the safety of every beef carcass on the market, but only as a spot check to detect the disease if it ever appeared. Until now, it has not.

"It's too premature to make any kind of determination or prediction as to what we may or may not do at this point in time," Dr. DeHaven said.

Dr. DeHaven said that the decision announced on Tuesday to ban downer cows from the food supply means that most such animals will be sent to rendering plants, which boil the carcasses to produce protein for poultry and swine feed, tallow, fat, oil and other products, including some used in cosmetics. As a result, much of the screening for mad cow disease will move away from slaughterhouses to rendering plants and farms. Dr. DeHaven described that change as a major shift in the surveillance system for the disease and said the government would have to start working with renderers to make sure the tests are done.

A consumer group, Center for Science in the Public Interest, has questioned the government's policy of declaring animals with the highest risk to be those 30 months and older. Such older animals are to be targets of testing, and their brains, spinal cords and other nerve tissue will be banned from the food supply, while such tissue from younger animals will be considered fit for human consumption.

The consumer group has criticized the policy because a small number of animals younger than 30 months have tested positive for the disease in Japan and Europe. Moreover, a January 2002 document prepared by the Agriculture Department itself suggested that the age cutoff should be 24 months, not 30.

But at the news conference, Dr. DeHaven said that because cow parts were banned from cattle feed in this country, the likelihood of animals younger than 30 months being infected here were remote. Neither he nor any other officials were available after the conference to discuss the 2002 report.