Loopholes in mad cow testing favor meat processors

AUSTIN, Texas, July 26, 2004 (ENS): University of Texas law professor and a food safety expert Thomas McGarity is warning that U.S. meat processing plants can too easily opt out of federal government regulations that are supposed to protect the public from mad cow disease.

A loophole in the regulations permits processors to choose not to implement rigorous standards for specific controls at specific points in meat processing, simply by asserting that mad cow disease is unlikely to be a problem in their facility.

"After reaching that conclusion on their own, and without government approval, industry is then allowed to follow far less rigorous industry drafted Standard Operation Procedures, sometimes called 'prerequisite' programs, to keep brain, spinal cord and the like out of edible meat. They are not required to actually check for mad cow," McGarity writes.

McGarity, president of the Center for Progressive Regulation, Friday issued a report on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) response to the discovery of a cow in Washington last December that was infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease.

"Flimsy Firewalls: The Continuing Triumph of Efficiency over Safety in Regulating Mad Cow Disease Risks," was written by McGarity with fellow member of the Center for Progressive Regulation Dr. Frank Ackerman, director of the Research and Policy Program at the Global Development and Environment Institute at Massachusetts' Tufts University.

Calling for "a truly independent federal agency to oversee food safety enforcement," McGarity says regulatory measures taken to date "are riddled with sham safeguards and faux firewalls that fail to protect public health."

Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, such as mad cow disease and its human form, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, 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 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.

McGarity warns that slaughter and processing establishments are being permitted to devise their own plans for identifying and preventing the spread of risky materials, without any requirement for government approval.

The USDA says that the agency requires that establishments that slaughter cattle and process the carcasses or parts develop, implement, and maintain written procedures for the removal, segregation, and disposition of specified risk materials (SRM).

In the Final Report of the Japan-United States BSE Working Group released on July 22 the USDA said, "The U.S. does not prescribe specific procedures that establishments must follow because it believes that establishments should have the flexibility to implement the most appropriate procedures that will best achieve the requirements of this rule. USDA inspection personnel verify that written SRM procedures are followed and effective."

Japan was among the dozens of countries that banned U.S. beef after the BSE positive cow was discovered, was one of the largest importers of U.S. beef. USDA officials Thursday concluded in Tokyo the last of its three meetings aimed at achieving a better mutual understanding of the technical issues surrounding the fatal brain-wasting disease.

Japan tests all cattle slaughtered for meat for the presence of the BSE infective agent and has required that the United States do the same before it will begin to import U.S. beef again. Japan has had 11 cases of BSE and is predicting another possible 50 or 60 cases.

The USDA has maintained that all cattle slaughtered for beef in the United States cannot be tested but says it tests a sufficient number to provide for public health and safety.

"The scheme of sampling and testing implemented in the United States since June 1, 2004, is in accordance with guidelines of the World Organization for Animal Health and was reviewed by the head of the International Review Team for the U.S. BSE case, Dr. Ulrich Kihm, and the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis," the BSE Working Group report states.

But McGarity and Ackerman say that an overlooked conclusion of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis of "especially great concern" is the report's "worst case analysis." Among their criticisms, McGarity and Ackerman said that the Harvard computer modeling almost completely ignores the possiblity of "synergies among worst case scenarios," which means the interactions among worst case scenarios.

"The limited analysis of worst case synergy that the report did undertake (at the behest of peer-reviewers) identified a scenario in which there was a 25 percent probability of more than a million cases of BSE occurring in the United States over a 20 year period," McGarity and Ackerman point out.

"Rather than expand its worst case analysis in response to this startling finding," McGarity and Ackerman write of the Harvard Risk Analysis, "the authors buried it in one of the tables in an Appendix and barely mentioned it at all in the text of the report."

But the USDA says surveillance since 1990 has not detected BSE in U.S. native cattle and emphasizes that the Washington cow found to be infected with BSE was imported from Canada.

The U.S. has an effective program in place to prevent the introduction of BSE into the U.S. cattle population since 1989 and measures to prevent amplification through feed since 1997, the USDA maintains.

The USDA has started on a National Animal Identification System that it says will help identify animals older than 30 months, the age at which U.S. officials say removal of specified risk materials should begin, as per international guidelines.

Japan's position is that since the United States tests a "relatively small number of animals," the data was insufficient and therefore, removal of specified risk materials should be implemented for cattle of all ages.

The European Union, which has dealt with an outbreak of BSE since the mi-1980s, tests all cattle older than 30 months for BSE prior to slaughter for human consumption.

McGarity and Ackerman warn in their own report that, "Establishments' methods for preventing mad cow are far less formal and far less thorough than the [U.S.] government's regulations or public statements would suggest. Establishments are not required to check for mad cow or even perform simple tests on brain and other risky nervous system tissues."

Establishments found to have allowed risky materials in their beef because of failures in the design or implementation of their self-devised control plans are not penalized.

"The sad truth," said McGarity, "is that the administration's response to the mad cow discovery of last December is so inadequate, so shaped by a desire to prop up industry."sales, that consumers are left with hollow promises of protection."

McGarity and Ackerman recommend that Congress should amend the Virus-Serum Toxin Act to allow for voluntary testing for BSE so that companies that wish to test to improve their market position may do so.

They suggest a Congresionally mandated deadline for the National Animal Identification System, user fees to cover the cost of BSE programs, legislation to allow recall of contaminated meat, mandatory testing for specified risk materials, and empowering the USDA to collect financial penalties for BSE violations.


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