Weaknesses found in U.S. mad cow feed ban

WASHINGTON, DC, March 15, 2005 (ENS): U.S. cattle are "at risk of spreading" mad cow disease because of weaknesses in a federal government program to keep certain kinds of banned animal protein out of cattle feed, Congressional investigators said in a report made public today.

More than five million cattle across Europe have been killed to stop the spread of mad cow disease, formally called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). Found in 26 countries, including Canada and the United States, BSE is believed to spread through animal feed that contains protein from BSE infected animals. Consuming meat from infected cattle has also been linked to the deaths of about 150 people worldwide.

In its report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said weaknesses in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) program for keeping nervous system tissue of ruminant animals out of cattle feed "continue to limit the effectiveness" of a 1997 ban on feeding this material to cattle.

In a February 25 letter to the Congressmen and Senators who requested the report, GAO Managing Director, Natural Resources and Environment, Robert Robinson acknowledged that the FDA does not agree with many of the conclusions of his report and warned against taking FDA reports to mean that the industry is in compliance with the feed ban.

"FDA believes that it already reports inspection results in a complete and accurate context, as we recommend. We disagree," wrote Robinson. "As noted above, given the data concerns and compliance unknowns raised in this report, FDA’s data should not be used to project industry compliance."

The ban was established to keep infectious prions out of cattle feed. Known to cause BSE, these prions are misfolded proteins most likely to be found in the brain, spinal cord and small intestines of infected animals.

The FDA has made needed improvements to its management and oversight of the feed-ban rule in response to GAO’s 2002 report, but the Congressional investigators say, program weaknesses "continue to undermine the nation’s firewall against BSE," the GAO reports.

FDA acknowledges that there are more feed manufacturers and transporters, on-farm mixers, and other feed industry businesses that are subject to the feed ban than the approximately 14,800 firms inspected to date; however, it has no uniform approach for identifying additional firms.

FDA has not reinspected approximately 2,800, or about 19 percent, of those businesses, in five or more years; several hundred are potentially high risk. FDA does not know whether those businesses now use prohibited material in their feed.

FDA’s feed-ban inspection guidance does not include instructions to routinely sample cattle feed to test for potentially prohibited material as part of the compliance inspection. Instead, it includes guidance for inspectors to visually examine facilities and equipment and review invoices and other documents.

Feed intended for export is not required to carry a caution label “Do not feed to cattle or other ruminants,” when the label would be required if the feed were sold domestically. Without that statement, feed containing prohibited material could be inadvertently or intentionally diverted back to U.S. cattle or given to foreign cattle.

FDA has not always alerted the U.S. Department of Agriculture and states when it learned that cattle may have been given feed that contained prohibited material. This lapse has been occurring even though FDA’s guidance calls for such communication.

Although research suggests that cattle can get BSE from ingesting even a small amount of infected material, inspectors do not routinely inspect or review cleanout procedures for vehicles used to haul cattle feed.

On the positive side, the FDA has established a uniform method of conducting compliance inspections and training FDA inspectors, as well as state inspectors who carry out inspections under agreements with FDA, on the new method.

The FDA has also implemented new data-entry procedures that are designed to more reliably track feed-ban inspection results.

Consequently, the GAO says, the Food and Drug Administration has a better management tool for overseeing compliance with the feed-ban rule and a data system that better conforms to standard database management practices.

The Congressional investigators recommend that the FDA, among other things, develop procedures for finding additional firms subject to the feed-ban and using tests to augment inspections.

The FDA responded that the study was thorough but disagreed on four of nine recommendations.

The GAO said it "continues to believe that, given the discovery of BSE in North America and the oversight gaps described in the report, the recommended actions are needed to protect U.S. cattle from BSE."

The GAO report is found at: http://www.gao.gov/docsearch/repandtest.html

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2004. All Rights Reserved.
http://www.ens-newswire.com/ens/mar2005/2005-03-15-03.asp


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