WASHINGTON, DC, February 25, 2004 (ENS):
The Bush administration is "very close" to
convincing Canada and Mexico to lift import bans imposed
on U.S. beef because of fears of mad cow disease, the
U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief economist told
the Senate Appropriations Committee Tuesday. The committee
welcomed this news, but several members expressed concerns
about the nation's overall strategy for dealing with
the long term economic and public health implications
of the fatal brain wasting disease.
"Mad cow disease is a very serious issue,"
said Senator Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat.
"It has the capacity to threaten human health and
to devastate the beef industry in this country."
The economics of the problem have taken center stage
for many - some 57 nations have stopped importing U.S.
beef in the wake of the December 2003 discovery of mad
cow disease in a Washington state dairy cow.
The list of nations includes Japan, Mexico, Canada
and South Korea, which combined account for 90 percent
of the U.S. beef export market.
Economist Keith Collins told the committee that it
could only be a "matter of days before we see some
progress with Canada and Mexico" but offered no
such predictions for Japan or South Korea.
The sticking points with these and other U.S. beef
importers are primarily the amount of testing done by
U.S. agriculture officials and loopholes in the U.S.
regulatory system that some believe leave consumers
at risk of consuming beef from contaminated cattle.
Mad cow disease, officially known as bovine spongiform
encephalopathy (BSE), spreads when an animal consumes
feed, such as meat and bone meal, that contains nervous
system tissue from an infected animal.
The infected cow was born in Canada in April 1997,
some four months before the United States and Canada
adopted a feed ban that prohibits the feeding of protein
from cattle back to other cattle.
Humans come down with a parallel fatal brain wasting
disease, variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease (vCJD), by
consuming beef from BSE infected cattle.
Some 36 million cattle are slaughtered annually in
the United States, but in 2003 only 20,000 were tested
for BSE. There is no test for mad cow disease that can
be conducted on live animals.
Critics note that European countries test up to 25
percent of their slaughtered cattle and Japan tests
100 percent for BSE. Critics cite a recent analysis
of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) records by
United Press International which found that fewer than
100 of the 700 U.S. plants that slaughter cattle tested
any cows at all over the past two years.
The Bush administration has committed to test some
40,000 cattle this year, and Secretary Veneman said
last week that more animals might also be tested.
The USDA's Chief Veterinarian Ron DeHaven defended
the decision to test only 40,000 animals. "Our
testing has been based on what we know about the science
of the disease," DeHaven said. "We get the
most bang for our surveillance buck by testing high
But it is not just the level of testing that has some
people concerned. In the wake of the mad cow discovery
in December, the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration
(FDA) announced new regulations to increase protection
of the food supply from BSE, but there are questions
as to whether these go far enough.
Dr. Elsa Murano, USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety
told the committee said that her department's decision
last month to keep "specified risk material"
- including brains and spinal cords - from cattle over
30 months of age out of the human food supply was the
"single most important action we could take to
protect public health."
But Senator Tom Harken, an Iowa Democrat, pointed out
that the FDA has not closed loopholes that allow for
the feeding of cows to pigs and chickens, and chicken
and pig material to cows.
That could allow contaminated material back into the
food supply, he said.
"Why don't we just simply ban the feeding of all
animal protein and animal bone meal to ruminanat animals?
That breaks the cycle," he said. "It seems
to me that breaking the cycle is one way of assuring
consumers here and abroad, and the second thing is to
have a national ID system."
Investigators were only able to track down 29 of the
infected cow's 81 original herdmates and there is broad
support for a national identification system.
Collins said the administration is moving forward with
developing such a system but wants to ensure a plan
does not burden the industry and "does not unnecessarily
increase the size or role of the federal government."
As for the animal protein and bone meal policies criticized
by Harkin, FDA Deputy Commissioner Dr. Lester Crawford
said the science does not support such a ban.
This strikes at a difficult problem for regulators
and politicians - there are large gaps in knowledge
about the transmission and development of BSE, vCJD
and other similar diseases such as chronic wasting disease
in deer and elk.
Senator Ted Stevens, chair of the committee and an
Alaska Republican, pressed administration officials
to analyze whether enough money is being spent on basic
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute
on Allergies and Infectious Diseases, avoided the request
for a figure but acknowledged that "nothing is
enough until you have gotten the answers."
"The challenges are more than the accomplishments,"
Fauci told the committee.
Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy urged regulators
to stand firm on the new ban on "downer" cattle,
which are animals too sick or injured to walk.
"These animals should not be ending up on somebody's
dinner plate," Leahy said.
Despite prior opposition to the policy, the administration
approved the ban on downer cattle in December in the
wake of the U.S. mad cow discovery - USDA officials
say records show the cow infected with mad cow disease
was a downer cow.
But evidence has now emerged that contradicts the USDA
assertions that the infected cow was a downer.
Thomas Ellestad, co-owner of the small Washington slaughterhouse
that handled the infected cow, Vern's Moses Lake Meats,
swore in an affidavit to an investigator for the Government
Accountability Project that the cow was not a downer.
He says his facility has not accepted downer cows since
late 2002. He affirmed that he sent a brain sample of
the infected cow to the USDA's regular sampling program
as required under his contract with the government,
not because it was a downer.
Ellestad's affidavit and two others from the dairy
farm owner and the trucker involved with the BSE cow
were collected by Congressmen Tom Davis, a Virginia
Republican who chairs the House Committe on Government
Reform, and the committee's Ranking Minority Member
Henry Waxman, a California Democrat.
On February 17, they wrote to Secretary Veneman presenting
their evidence that the infected cow was not a downer,
and asking her to address the gap between the evidence
and USDA statements to the contrary.
"If the information we have received is true,"
the congressmen wrote, "a key premise of the USDA
BSE testing program is subverted. It is self-evident
that if the only BSE infected cow in the United States
was able to walk and had no symptoms of nervous system
disease, USDA should not assume that all infected cattle
will be either downer cows or cows that exhibt symptoms
of nervous system disease."
The USDA's Office of Inspector General has initiated
an investigation into the matter.
Senator Dorgan pressed the USDA to move forward with
country of origin labeling for beef, even though the
omnibus spending bill passed last month allows the agency
to delay implementation of the law for two years.
"I could tell you where you tie is made, where
your shoes and where your shirt is made," Dorgan
told Collins, "but not where a piece of beef is
"The USDA is imitating a glacier on this issue,"
he said. "It is the law of the land and we expect
it to be administered ... not just on behalf of livestock
producers but on behalf of consumers."
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2004. All