The mad cow that stole Christmas
First U.S. case of mad cow disease diagnosed


WASHINGTON, DC, December 24, 2003 (ENS): Nearly five tons of raw beef have been recalled by a Washington state meat processing firm because the meat may have been exposed to tissues containing the infectious agent that causes mad cow disease. On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that a cow in Washington state has been identified as the first U.S. animal to have the fatal brain wasting disease.

Verns Moses Lake Meats, a Moses Lake, Washington establishment, is recalling the 20 carcasses, some 10,410 pounds of beef. The potentially tainted meat was shipped on from Verns to Midway Meats in Centralia, Washington and then on to two other establishments where it was further processed. Although a hastily assembled team of inspectors is now scrambling to determine where the infection entered the animal feed chain, U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) officials say this is a Class 2 recall, meaning that there is only a "remote probability of any health risk."

The tissues of highest infectivity are the brain, the spinal cord and a part of the intestines called the distal ileum. These tissues are regularly removed from the rest of beef carcasses at slaughter.

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman told reporters today that because these tissues are removed, the "meat produced are cuts that would not be expected to be infected or have an adverse public health impact but are being recalled out of an abundance of caution."

Mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), spreads from one animal to another by consumption of feed that has been contaminated by protein, such as blood or meat meal, from an infected animal. 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.

The human form of BSE, known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), can be transmitted if a human being consumes BSE infected meat, or possibly through blood transfusions.

The high-risk material - the brain, spinal cord and certain parts of the intestines - are the most infective tissues. Dr. Ken Petersen with the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service today told reporters, "Those tissues did not make their way into the food supply."

Regardless of such assurances, countries around the world that import U.S. beef have suspended their purchases. Japan and South Korea, as well as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Russia, and South Africa have suspended imports of U.S. beef products, Dr. Keith Collins USDA chief economist, told reporters today.

Mexico, which takes about a fifth of U.S. beef exports, and Canada, which takes about a tenth of U.S. beef exports, have not yet suspended trade, although when one case of BSE was found in Alberta, Canada in May, the United States banned beef from Canada for six months.

U.S. beef exports for 2002 were worth $2.6 billion, about 10 percent of all the beef production in the United States, Dr. Collins said.

The cow found to have BSE was culled from her herd on a farm in Mabton, Washington on December 9. She was paralyzed due to apparent complications when she was calving, and was classified as a "downed" animal.

All downed animals are automatically subject to USDA inspection at slaughter as standard operating procedure, and this inspection detected the presence of BSE. There is no live animal test for BSE, so the diseased animal could not have been identified while still alive.

The farm involved is a large dairy operation, Veneman said today. "It involves two premises in Southern Washington, totaling about 4,000 cows on the two premises." The entire operation has been quarantined, and no animals will be permitted to leave either of the two premises, dead or alive.

A team of state and federal officials assembled overnight is in the state of Washington investigating the history of this animal to determine if any others may be infected on farms where she had lived.

"Much of our investigation right now," Secretary Veneman said, "is finding all of the premises this animal could have resided on from the time she was born until she came to this herd, again, in October of 2001. She’s been there about two years. She came into the herd as a two year old animal, calved shortly after arriving and would have been approximately on her third calf at the time she was sent to slaughter."

Several Washington state cattle feed mills recently have been found to be in violation of the 1997 mad cow disease prevention rules. On July 11, 2003 the FDA filed a permanent injunction against X-Cel, Feeds Inc., a Tacoma, Washington company whose officers admitted liability for failing to comply with the mad cow disease prevention rule. The firm and officers admitted introducing adulterated and misbranded animal feeds into interstate commerce and agreed to implement measures to correct the violations under the FDA's supervision.

Two cattle feed companies near the Mabton farm have been in violation of federal regulations meant to prevent the disease.

According to the the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) database of animal feed company inspection records, M & E Seed & Grain Co. Inc, a non-FDA licensed feed mill located in Prosser, Washington, 13 miles from Mabton, is a violator of mad cow prevention feed handling rules. It was last inspected in October 2002, when the FDA classed the company as needing to take "voluntary action."

In addition, RTK Producers, an animal feed transporter located in Moses Lake that handled proteins prohibited from use in cattle feed was previously listed by the FDA as being in violation of mad cow prevention rules, according to a listing on the FDA’s website in October 2003.

In a letter to the FDA today, Friends of the Earth requested that all feed handlers in Washington state that are in violation of mad cow prevention rules, or that have been in violation in the past, be evaluated for potential exposure of cattle to prohibited materials.

Through its Safer Food – Safer Farms Program, Friends of the Earth is working to end factory farming practices that cause adverse health and environmental effects. The organization warned on October 10 that the number of businesses in violation of mad cow rules had almost tripled since April of 2002.

But Dr. Stephen Sundlof of the Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine told reporters today that while at first about 25 percent of the hundreds of firms that handle protein derived from cattle, sheep or goats were not in compliance with the 1997 ban, nearly all companies are now in compliance.

"At that time we had about 75 percent of the firms were in compliance with our feed ban. Since then, we've achieved a level of 99 percent compliance," he said.

"There are 1,826 firms currently that handle this prohibited material. There are two firms, right now, that are not in compliance," said Sundlof, who added that all of these facilities are inspected once a year.

“There is no excuse for cattle feed suppliers to be in violation of government rules to prevent mad cow disease,” said Dr. Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth. “The FDA needs to enforce the law. Until it does, the best way for people to avoid the risk of mad cow disease is to eat organic, grass fed beef or beef alternatives.”

Hamburger restaurants across the United States hastened to assure the public today that their meat products are safe for human consumption.

"This situation has absolutely no connection whatsoever to McDonald's or our suppliers," the world's largest restaurant chain said today in a statement. "McDonald's has the most experienced, comprehensive and trusted quality assurance programs in the world. In fact, our strict safety guidelines absolutely prohibit cows of this kind to ever enter our supply chain."

Burger King Corporation confirmed that the packers involved in the discovery of BSE do not supply meat to Burger King restaurants. Citing "rigorous product safety procedures" for its suppliers, Burger King said only whole muscle meat from the forequarters and flanks of cattle are used in its hamburger products. Scientists have never linked BSE to muscle meat.

"The identified cow is called a 'downer', or one that cannot walk," said Tom Mueller, Wendy's president of North America. "Wendy's has a strict policy prohibiting the processing of downer cows in our beef supply. Additionally, our beef supply is not affiliated with the meat plants where the single cow was detected," he said.

Many other restaurant chains - Jack-in-the-Box, Checkers, Sonic, Friendly's and CKE Restaurants which runs Hardee's, Carl's Jr., Green Burrito, La Salsa Fresh Mexican Grill and Timber Lodge Steakhouse - praised the efforts of federal agencies to ensure a safe food supply and assured potential customers that their hamburgers are safe.

Doug Benham, Arby's incoming president and CEO said, "We believe our guests should continue to eat Arby's products with confidence. The purchase of downer cattle for Arby's beef supply is strictly prohibited by the Arby's system. We obtain certification from each and every vendor and supplier as to their compliance with this requirement."

National Cattlemen's Beef Association CEO Terry Stokes said today, "This case was found in a federally inspected plant. The central nervous tissue from this animal, which scientists recognize as the infective material, did not go into the food supply."

Consumers should continue to eat beef with confidence, Stokes said. "All scientific studies show that the BSE infectious agent has never been found in beef muscle meat or milk and U.S. beef remains safe to eat."

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

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