- Like a mantra, federal officials and beef-industry executives
are fond of repeating that there never has been a case of mad-cow disease
in the United States.
- It's the same claim that Germany, Italy, Spain and Japan
used to make -- until the disease showed up in their cattle, instantly
resulting in plunging beef sales.
- Will the U.S. go down the same road?
- On Friday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Harvard
University plan to release a government-funded study that is expected to
show that the U.S. has little chance of facing the kind of mad-cow epidemic
that befell Britain, where the disease was first diagnosed in cattle 15
- But a close examination of America's mad-cow safety net
shows some possible flaws. New data provided Tuesday by the U.S. Food and
Drug Administration reveal that scores of shipments of animal byproducts
for use in animal feed came into the U.S. in recent years from countries
that now have mad-cow disease in their cattle herds, a potentially serious
source of contamination. In addition, federal inspections have shown that
many U.S. animal-feed mills continue to violate regulations designed to
prevent the spread of the disease. And critics say the U.S. isn't spending
enough time or money inspecting cattle -- or people -- for signs of the
- Costly Implications
- The potential implications for America's already-battered
economy are significant: A little-noticed analysis by the FDA in 1997 predicted
that if mad-cow disease ever struck cattle in the U.S., the costs would
run into the billions of dollars, mostly "to restore consumer confidence
in beef and dairy products."
- Mad-cow disease is worrisome because it can jump from
cows to humans, and the incurable ailment, which perforates the brain with
microscopic holes, is always fatal. During the past five years, more than
100 people, nearly all in Britain, have died from variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob
disease, and at least 27 new cases have been diagnosed in the first 10
months of this year. Meanwhile, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE),
which strikes cows, has been reported in domestic herds in 18 countries
to date. Several other countries have found diseased animals that had been
imported from Britain.
- Though the origins of BSE remain unclear, scientists
are convinced that it spreads among cattle through infected feed containing
meat-and- bone meal, a protein supplement made from the ground-up parts
of cows. If the animal being processed is infected, then the meal can transmit
the disease to many other animals. It takes only one gram of contaminated
material to infect a cow.
- Britain banned the practice of feeding meat-and-bone
meal to cattle in 1988. It later expanded the ban to other farm animals
after finding that the material was still contaminating some cattle feed
because of sloppy handling by farmers and feed mills. To date, more than
180,000 British cows have contracted the disease, although the number of
cases has been steadily declining since 1993.
- Missing: 32 Cattle
- U.S. officials say the British experience isn't comparable.
All but 32 live cattle imported from Britain and Ireland in the 1980s into
the U.S. have been traced and destroyed or quarantined. Government officials
and many experts also say that, even if a few cases of BSE were to show
up in the U.S., there's little chance the disease would spread to many
cattle. Harvard University researcher George Gray, who entered numerous
possible scenarios into a computer model as part of the new study with
the USDA, says, "Almost no matter what we do, it doesn't blow up in
- But even Dr. Gray doesn't rule out the possibility of
some cases cropping up. For one thing, the U.S. didn't ban most mammal-
based animal protein, including meat-and-bone meal, in cattle rations until
1997. And, unlike in Europe, it continues to allow it in feed for other
farm animals, including pigs and chickens, leaving a risk of cross-contamination
into cattle feed.
- Another concern in the U.S. is imports. Last December,
the USDA banned all imports of rendered animal proteins from 31 countries
that either had BSE or presented "an undue risk of introducing BSE
into the United States."
- In response to a request from this newspaper, the FDA
recently tracked how much animal protein came into the U.S. from those
31 countries between 1998 and last December. The records, gleaned from
U.S. Customs data, showed at least 72 shipments, including mammal-based
bone meal, dried meat scraps, animal waste and blood. The countries included
Britain as well as places such as France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Japan,
where mad-cow cases are on the rise. The weight of the shipments wasn't
- In addition, the FDA said that 30 shipments of animal
byproducts had arrived in the U.S. after the ban took effect. The agency
has been able to track 11 of those shipments, but the whereabouts of the
other 19 isn't clear. The agency said it is investigating.
- FDA officials said in interviews that they believe most
of the animal protein imported from the 31 countries ended up in pet food.
But the records provided by the agency don't indicate the material's intended
- It's also unclear how much animal protein, including
possibly meat-and-bone meal, has been imported into the U.S. in recent
years from non-European countries which haven't yet detected mad-cow disease
but could in the future. Other than Japan, "if an Asian country wants
to export meat-and-bone meal into the U.S. there would not be any restrictions,"
says Stephen F. Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine.
He notes, however, that once inside the U.S., the material would be subject
to the cattle-feed ban.
- 'Chicken Litter' Risk
- Another potential problem, say FDA officials, is "chicken
litter," the mixture of excrement, excess feed and feathers that ends
up on the floor of chicken houses. Although the beef and feed industry
doesn't like to publicize it, the material remains permissible as an ingredient
in cattle feed, although the practice of using it isn't believed to be
widespread. "It's mostly an on-the-farm practice," says Richard
Sellers, vice president for feed control and nutrition at the American
Feed Industry Association. Since chicken feed can contain bovine meat-and-bone
meal, the litter represents a potential source of contamination, the FDA
believes. "In litter, there is feed that's spilled and gets mixed
in," says the FDA's Dr. Sundlof. He says the agency is considering
banning its use in cattle feed.
- The FDA also is considering banning the use of so-called
"plate waste" in cattle feed, Dr. Sundlof says. The 1997 mammalian-protein
ban exempted left-over restaurant food, which can be processed and fed
to cows, although it's mostly fed to pigs. Hotel-casinos and theme parks
in places such as Atlantic City, N.J., and Orlando have been the main providers.
But the FDA believes such waste could contain bits of cow brain or other
potentially infected cow parts that, unlike in Europe, are still allowed
to be consumed in the U.S.
- However, plate-waste proponents argue that banning the
stuff in cattle feed is illogical. Asks Michael Malecha, a food-industry
consultant in Madison, Wis., "Here we have a product that's USDA-inspected,
that's suitable to be served to humans, and yet we're saying, don't feed
it to animals?"
- Recent evidence also raises questions about the effectiveness
-- and enforcement -- of the 1997 cattle-feed ban itself.
- When the FDA published the regulation detailing the ban,
it stated that "the vigorous implementation of this rule will very
nearly eliminate the risk of the widespread proliferation of BSE in the
United States." But FDA officials concede today they don't even know
how many feed mills operate in the U.S. Many are small and don't require
federal licenses. In addition, when the ban was implemented, no money was
authorized to verify feed mills were complying. As a result, agency officials
say, planned inspections soon fell behind schedule.
- Disappointing Inspections
- Officials say they've since caught up, but the results
so far are disappointing: Inspections of 2,653 feed mills that handle meat-and-bone
meal found that more than a fifth weren't taking adequate precautions to
ensure the material wasn't ending up in cattle feed. And even after many
reinspections, as of late last month about 13% of the mills remained out
- A review of more than 50 warning letters the FDA sent
to feed mills this year shows the type of problems encountered. During
a March visit to Farmers Mill & Elevator Co. in Dexter, Ga., which
makes cattle and hog feed, an inspector found meat-and-bone meal that was
being stored on pallets of cattle feed. He also discovered that corn used
to flush out mixing equipment prior to making cattle feed was being bagged
for use in hog feed, but without any required warning labels not to use
it in cattle feed.
- "Of particular concern is that these same violations
were pointed out during the previous inspection of this facility on Oct.
21, 1998," states the warning letter, dated March 30, 2001.
- Carol Rowland, the mill's office manager, says the company
has since stopped using meat-and-bone meal altogether. "I'd rather
not handle it," she says.
- Most of the violations found during feed-mill inspections
center on paperwork. For example, mills were cited for failing to establish
written procedures to prevent meat-and-bone meal from mingling with cattle
feed, or to label products that contain meal with the warning, "Do
not feed to Cattle or Other Ruminants." But the FDA hasn't actually
tested any cattle feed to see if it contains any prohibited material.
- In contrast, Britain has been conducting such tests since
1996. FDA officials say they intend to test 600 samples of cattle feed
next year. "That was what we could afford to do," an agency official
explained. Officials say they will increase testing if they find evidence
- While the FDA is responsible for regulating animal feed,
the Agriculture Department is charged with dealing with animal diseases,
including BSE. The USDA says it has conducted an "active surveillance
program since 1990" to prevent the disease from entering the U.S.
and hasn't detected any signs.
- Unlike in Europe, the USDA's surveillance program doesn't
test apparently healthy animals. The agency says 88% of U.S. cattle are
slaughtered at less than 20 months of age, and no BSE has ever been detected
in an animal that young. "We want to target where we're most likely
to find it, as opposed to shotgunning," says Linda Detwiler, who oversees
the USDA's mad-cow surveillance efforts.
- The USDA says it's focusing on cows that can't walk,
known as downer cows. While a variety of ailments, ranging from muscle
tears to neurological disorders, can prevent a cow from standing, it's
also a documented symptom of mad-cow disease. The agency estimates there
are about 130,000 downer animals in the U.S. each year. This year it has
tested more than 4,400, up from 344 in 1998.
- But a quirky consequence of the mad-cow scare is that
cattle raisers now have a financial incentive to kill and bury downers
rather than send them to slaughterhouses, where USDA inspectors are deployed
to test for BSE and other health hazards. The market for downers has been
drying up. Fast-food chains such as McDonald's Corp. and Burger King Corp.
have told slaughterhouses they no longer will accept meat from such animals
as a safety precaution. (Mad-cow disease isn't the only concern. Downers
tend to carry salmonella and other pathogens from lying in manure.)
- Worried that downer cows may be falling off its radar
screen, the USDA has begun offering to purchase them for BSE-testing purposes.
- The flip side of mad-cow surveillance in the U.S. is
the effort to detect the disease in humans. Unlike the repeated claims
that the country is at little risk of BSE, government officials say cases
of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human version of the illness,
appear almost inevitable. That's because millions of Americans lived or
travelled to Britain during the 1980s and early 1990s, when BSE was rampant,
and may have been exposed by consuming infected meat. Hong Kong, for example,
recently reported a vCJD case of a woman who had spent years living in
- "I would not be surprised if there is a vCJD case
in the U.S.," says the FDA's Dr. Sundlof. Adds Lawrence Schonberger,
an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in
Atlanta, "There may well be some people in the United States who are
incubating the disease." (The disease's incubation period remains
unknown, but it is believed to take years, even decades, before symptoms
- But one of the scientists involved in looking for human
cases says the surveillance effort to date is inadequate and that the U.S.
"is way behind" other countries, including Canada. "There's
no question in my mind that this country must have good surveillance because
if we miss these cases, then we are in trouble," warns Pierluigi Gambetti,
director of the National Prion Disease Pathology Surveillance Center at
Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Mad-cow is one of several
related brain disorders believed to be caused by an aberrant protein known
as a prion.
- Dr. Gambetti says he's concerned because vCJD potentially
is much more infectious than classical CJD, a prion disease already present
in the U.S. Classical CJD occurs spontaneously in about one in every million
people and can be transmitted through surgical instruments used in brain
operations. Although there's no known case of a human passing vCJD to another
human, scientists are worried it may be transmissible through blood or
other means. That fear has prompted restrictions in the U.S. on blood donors
who have spent time in Britain and the rest of Europe.
- Dr. Gambetti says there are about 300 reported cases
of prion diseases in the U.S. each year, but that his lab currently is
analyzing only about a third of them to see if they might be mad-cow disease.
"The British and Germans politely smile when they see we examine 30%
or 40% of the cases," he says. "They know unless you examine
80% or more, you are not in touch."
- At the CDC, which helps to fund Dr. Gambetti's lab, Dr.
Schonberger agrees that "the more autopsies that are done, the better
it will be for detecting" vCJD. But he believes the surveillance in
the U.S. up until now has been adequate because, even though relatively
few autopsies have been done, the CDC has reviewed the medical records
of all victims of prion disease under the age of 55 and has found no cases
- Write to Steve Stecklow at email@example.com http://interactive.wsj.com/articles/SB1006897773680759520.htm
- USDA, Harvard To Release BSE Report
- By Darcy Maulsby
- USDA and Harvard University will release a long-awaited
study Nov. 30 assessing the chance that bovine spongiform encephalopathy
(BSE) could spread to the United States. The groups are expected to release
the study at 1:30 p.m. EST.
- History of the Study In April 1998, USDA asked Harvard's
School of Public Health to analyze and evaluate the agencyís current
BSE prevention strategies.
- The report was originally planned for release last spring.
Publication of the study was pushed back a number of times, however, due
to new data regarding U.S. meat imports from European countries, according
to industry officials.
- George Gray, Harvard's lead researcher in the study,
has previously said there was little risk that BSE would reach the United
- No case of BSE has ever been found in the United States.
Since the first outbreak in the mid-1980s in Britain, U.S. government agencies
have imposed import bans on some European animals, meat and human blood.
- However, some critics say the U.S. government has not
done enough to protect consumers from the deadly disease.