U.S. bans downer cattle for human consumption

WASHINGTON, DC, January 2, 2004 (ENS): The Washington state dairy cow found to be infected with mad cow disease in late December has sent federal officials rushing to put in place a new set of regulations in an attempt to keep the fatal brain wasting disease out of the human food chain.

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced the new rules Tuesday. Effectively immediately, she said, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will ban all downer cattle from the human food chain. Downed animals cannot walk on their own, one of the symptoms of mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

"We are extremely happy that the USDA is agreeing to ban downed cattle from entering the human food chain," said Gene Bauston, president of Farm Sanctuary, a national organization that has campaigned to ban the sale of downed animals since 1986. "Removing downed animals from the human food chain will give farmers the incentive to prevent the problem in the first place. Ninety percent of downed animals can be prevented with better care on the farm."

Beef industry associations are behind the new rule. “We wholeheartedly support the ban on disabled cattle from entering the human food chain,” said Dr. John Maas, who chairs the Cattle Health Committee of the California Cattlemen's Association. “Past efforts by USDA to ensure these disabled animals are safe for human consumption cost too much in terms of agency resources. We strongly urge USDA to implement a system in which disabled cattle are humanely handled and tested for BSE as well as other diseases as part of their surveillance system.”

To prevent the entry into commerce of meat and meat food products that are adulterated, USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service inspectors already perform inspection of cattle that are slaughtered in the United States both before and after slaughter. There is no live animal test for mad cow disease, but before death inspectors look for signs of disease, including signs of central nervous system impairment. Animals showing signs of systemic disease are condemned. Meat from all condemned animals has never been permitted for use as human food, Veneman said.

Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, such as mad cow disease and its human form, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), are spread by prions - abnormally shaped proteins that originate as regular components of neurological tissues in animals - they are not cellular organisms or viruses, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

Mad cow disease spreads from one animal to another by consumption of feed that has been contaminated by these proteins, such as blood or meat meal, that contains nervous system tissue from an infected animal. The human form of the disease can be transmitted if a human being eats BSE infected meat, or possibly through blood transfusions.

Since August 1997, a feed ban has been in place in the United States that prohibits the feeding of protein from cattle back to other cattle. But several of the loopholes in the system are being filled by the new rules.

The USDA will continue its BSE surveillance program, Veneman said, but inspectors will no longer mark cattle tested for BSE as “inspected and passed” until confirmation is received that the animals have, in fact, tested negative for the disease. This new policy will be in the form of an interpretive rule that will be published in the Federal Register.

In the past two years, USDA inspectors have tested approximately 20,000 of the 40 million cows slaughtered annually in the United States, about one in every 2,000 animals. This is 47 times the recommended international standard, the USDA says.

The major concern for consumers is the potential contamination of meat products by brain and spinal cord tissue during routine slaughter. This indirect intake of high risk tissues may have been the source of human illnesses in the United Kingdom, where 153 people have died from vCJD.

To help prevent high risk tissues from entering the human food chain, Veneman said the USDA will enhance its regulations by declaring as specified risk materials skull, brain, trigeminal ganglia, eyes, vertebral column, spinal cord and dorsal root ganglia of cattle over 30 months of age and the small intestine of cattle of all ages. These tissues will be prohibited in addition to brain, spinal column, and intestinal tissue which are already banned for human consumption.

These classifications are consistent with the actions taken by Canada after the discovery of BSE in May in one Alberta cow.

In an interim final rule, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) will require federally inspected establishments that slaughter cattle to develop, implement, and maintain procedures to remove, segregate, and dispose of these specified risk materials so that they cannot possibly enter the food chain, Veneman said.

State inspected plants must have equivalent procedures in place.

Veneman also announced changes to an industrial technology known as advanced meat recovery. This technology removes muscle tissue from the bone of beef carcasses under high pressure without incorporating bone material when operated properly. The USDA permits products of the advanced meat recovery process to be labeled as “meat.”

Currently, spinal cord tissue is banned from being included in products labeled as “meat.” The new regulation expands that prohibition to include dorsal root ganglia, clusters of nerve cells connected to the spinal cord along the vertebrae column. Like spinal cord, the dorsal root ganglia may also contain BSE infectivity if the animal is infected. In addition, because the vertebral column and skull in cattle 30 months and older will be considered inedible, they cannot be used for advanced meat recovery.

In the new interim final rule announced Tuesday, meat processing establishments will have to ensure control through verification testing to ensure that neither spinal cord nor dorsal root ganglia is present in their products.

In addition, the USDA will prohibit use of mechanically separated meat in human food.

Air injection stunning is banned by the new regulations, although most of the beef industry has already stopped using this process.

Until recently a method of stunning that injects compressed air into the animal's cranium was used to disrupt the brain structure and induce total and prolonged unconsciousness, which is intended to insure that cattle are slaughtered in a humane manner. But air injection stunning has been shown to force large pieces of brain, into the circulatory system of stunned cattle. These brain parts can lodge in edible tissues.

"To ensure that portions of the brain are not dislocated into the tissues of the carcass as a consequence of humanely stunning cattle during the slaughter process, FSIS is issuing a regulation to ban the practice of air injection stunning," Veneman said.

All these new rules will be effective upon publication in the Federal Register.

Veneman also announced that the USDA will begin immediate implementation of a verifiable system of national animal identification. The development of such a system has been under way for more than 18 months to achieve uniformity, consistency and efficiency across this national system.

But the organizers of the annual international observance Meatout, the nonprofit group Farm Animal Reform Movement, say these measures are too little, too late.

"The government has no basis for claiming that Americans do not consume meat products containing spinal column and brain tissue, traditional carriers of the disease," the organization said in a statement today. "During slaughter, muscle tissues are routinely sprayed with bits of these tissues. T-bone steaks, hamburgers, hot dogs, and beef fillings and toppings contain skeletal fragments, including the spinal column. Beef stock, extract, and flavoring are made by boiling skeletal remains," according to the Meatout statement.

On December 23, 2003 Veneman reported that a cow in Mabton, Washington in the Yakima Valley tested positive for BSE. Two herds in the area including the mad cow's herd have been under quarantine from that date. Today a third herd was placed in quarantine.

An investigation is underway to trace the infected animal to a herd of origin, which is believed to be located in Alberta, Canada, as well as track additional animals that have entered the United States.

The USDA today confirmed that 81 of the 82 animals listed on the Canadian health certificate that includes the eartag number of the infected cow entered the United States through Oroville, Washington, on September 4, 2001. One of those 82 has now been located at a Mattawa, Washington dairy operation, which is now under a state quarantine.

Ron DeHaven is chief veterinarian for the U.S. Agriculture Department. (Photo courtesy USDA)
USDA officials are working with their Canadian counterparts to conduct DNA testing to verify that the correct animal has been identified, USDA Chief Veterinarian Ron DeHaven told reporters at a briefing Wednesday. Results may be available as early as the first week in January.
The agency says its interest in finding those cows is not because BSE can spread from cow to cow, but because it is possible they shared a common feed source when young. Since 1989, USDA has banned imports of live ruminants and most ruminant products from the United Kingdom and other countries having BSE, but not from Canada where BSE had not been found until May 2003.

Based on the experience of the United Kingdom where BSE was first detected in 1986, the USDA said today that other infected animals may be found. "Even at the height of the outbreak in the United Kingdom, it was uncommon to have more than just one or two infected cattle in the same herd," the agency said.

During the height of the BSE outbreak in the United Kingdom from 1989 through 1999, approximately 185,000 cases of the disease were reported, according to the Office International des Epizooties (OIE), an intergovernmental organization based in Paris.

Veneman has called for a team of international experts to review the U.S. investigation and make recommendations, and Dehaven told reporters that the team would be similar to the group that conducted such a review in Canada.

It will be led by Dr. Ulrich Kihm, former chief veterinary officer of Switzerland, DeHaven said. In addition to Kihm, USDA has tentative commitments from William Hueston, director of the Center for Animal Health and Food Safety, University of Minnesota; Dagmar Heim, chief of the BSE control program in the Swiss Federal Veterinary Office; and Stuart MacDiarmid, a BSE expert with the government of New Zealand.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2003. All Rights Reserved.

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