Senate panel wrestles with impact of mad cow disease

By J.R. Pegg

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 risk populations."

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 research.

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 from."

"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 Rights Reserved.

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