- WASHINGTON, DC (ENS) - Federal
actions aimed at preventing mad cow disease from entering the United States
do not ensure that the disease will be kept out, finds a new report by
the General Accounting Office. The report by the investigative arm of Congress
also warns that the U.S. could not guarantee rapid detection of the disease
if it did cross the nation's borders.
- Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known
as mad cow disease, is an always fatal, neuro-degenerative disease that
has been found in cattle in 23 countries around the world. Cattle contract
the disease through animal feed that contains protein derived from the
remains of diseased animals.
- Cows may develop Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE),
or mad cow disease, if they are given feed containing tissues from infected
animals (Photo by Brian Prechtel courtesy USDA)
- Scientists generally believe an equally fatal disease
in humans - known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease (vCJD) - is linked
to eating beef from cattle infected with BSE. Just over 100 people have
died from vCJD, one of a family of diseases known as transmissible spongiform
- Both diseases have long incubation periods during which
they are undetectable - two to eight years in cattle and possibly up to
30 years in humans.
- For more than a decade, the federal agencies responsible
for ensuring the safety of the public and the nation's food supply have
been working to prevent BSE from entering the U.S., and creating mechanisms
for detecting and tracking the disease if it should appear here.
- But a new report from the General Accounting Office (GAO)
finds that while BSE has not yet been found in the United States, "federal
actions do not sufficiently ensure that all BSE infected animals or products
are kept out or that if BSE were found, it would be detected promptly and
not spread to other cattle through animal feed or enter the human food
- Despite regulations which bar imports of beef from countries
where the disease has been found, tons of beef has entered the U.S. from
such nations, because it was imported before the disease was detected.
In fact, the United States has imported about 125 million pounds of beef
and about 1,000 cattle from countries that later discovered BSE - during
the period when BSE would have been incubating in those nations.
- In addition, new sources of BSE contamination may continue
to enter the U.S., because of weaknesses in import controls such as an
insufficient number of inspectors and inspection facilities to manage a
growing load of overseas imports.
- Validating tests for mad cow disease at a lab in Geel,
Belgium (Photo courtesy EU Joint Research Center)
- The GAO report was requested by three U.S. Senators last
fall, after a report by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis concluded
that BSE is extremely unlikely to become established in the United States
and that, if introduced here, it would be eliminated within 20 years.
- The authors of that study acknowledged that their conclusions
were based on a number of assumptions, including confidence in U.S. measures
to prevent the introduction and spread of BSE.
- The new report by the GAO casts doubt on the Harvard
conclusions, and suggests further measures that federal agencies should
take to keep BSE out of the U.S.
- For example, the report notes that the United States
has a more permissive feed ban than other countries - one that bars proteins
from cattle, pigs and chickens, but allows cattle feed to contain proteins
from horses and pigs. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is now reviewing
whether these ingredients should also be banned in cattle feed.
- Banned feed products may still be served at some cattle
ranches, the GAO found.
- "FDA has not acted promptly to compel firms to keep
prohibited proteins out of cattle feed and to label animal feed that cannot
be fed to cattle," the report notes.
- Calling FDA's data on inspections "severely flawed,"
the GAO said it found some noncompliant firms "that had not been reinspected
for two or more years and instances when no enforcement action had occurred
even though the firms had been found noncompliant on multiple inspections."
- In 1997, the FDA banned the use of most mammalian proteins
in food for cattle, sheep and goats (Photo by Larry Rana, courtesy U.S.
Department of Agriculture)
- These inspection lapses could put the public at risk,
the GAO explained, because "consumers do not always know when foods
and other products they use may contain central nervous system tissue,
which, according to scientific experts, could pose a health risk if taken
from diseased animals."
- As in most countries that are BSE free, the United States
allows cattle brains and other central nervous system tissue to be sold
as human food.
- The GAO also criticized the U.S. Department of Agriculture
(USDA), noting it does not test many animals that die on farms, despite
the fact that experts consider these animals to be a high risk population
- However, the GAO recognized that the USDA acted as many
as five years earlier than other countries to impose controls over imports
of animals and animal feed ingredients from countries that had experienced
- Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman defended the agency's
efforts, saying the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services
(HHS) "have been aggressive and proactive for well over a decade to
prevent BSE from entering the United States."
- "While we support the GAO's efforts to examine ways
to strengthen the government's ongoing efforts to prevent BSE, the report
fails to appropriately recognize the conclusions and recommendations made
last year by Harvard University in its comprehensive, three year study
on BSE," Veneman said. The USDA is now supporting a peer review of
the Harvard study to determine the accuracy of the approaches and assumptions
of its models.
- "In examining recommendations, the GAO report does
not appropriately consider the additional actions that have been taken
by federal agencies to strengthen BSE programs," Veneman added.
- Health and Human Services Secretary, Tommy Thompson (Photo
courtesy Office of the Secretary)
- Last year, Veneman and HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson outlined
a series of actions to reduce the risk of BSE entering the U.S., including
doubling testing for BSE in cattle this year, and adding tests of cattle
that die on farms.
- Increased funding proposed by the Bush administration
would boost surveillance efforts and increase the number of inspectors
available to test imported goods for BSE.
- "We continue to take strong actions and keep our
vigilance high to prevent this disease from entering this country,"
said Thompson. "If we ever did face a situation, we want to ensure
that strong systems are in place to prevent its potential spread to the
animal or human food chain."
- So far, no cases of BSE have been detected in the U.S.
However, in March 2001, a flock of sheep infected with a condition closely
related to mad cow disease was confiscated from a Vermont farm by the USDA.
- These Vermont sheep, imported from Belgium and the Netherlands
in 1996, were found to carry scrapie, a form of transmissible spongiform
encephalopathy (Photo courtesy USDA)
- The economic impacts of a BSE outbreak in the United
States could be severe, according to federal economists. Beef exports and
domestic beef consumption would drop, with many consumers refusing to eat
beef served at U.S. restaurants or available in U.S. made products.
- Regarding effects on human health, "If BSE infected
cattle were to enter the food supply, some people might develop vCJD,"
warned the GAO. "However, experts disagree about the number of people
who would be affected. While many believe that vCJD is very difficult to
contract, so that relatively few people would develop it, some experts
believe that, because of the long incubation period, no one can predict
whether few or many might contract vCJD."
- The GAO recommends that the USDA and FDA take steps to
strengthen enforcement of the feed ban, develop a coordinated strategy
to increase inspections of imported goods, and alert consumers when products
may contain central nervous system tissue.
- For more information about BSE, visit: http://www.aphis/usda.gov
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