Nobel Winner Pruisner Says
All Cattle Must Be Tested
By Charles Abbott

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The only way to assure beef is free of mad cow disease is to test all cattle for the brain-destroying disease, as Japan does, Nobel Prize winner Stanley Prusiner said on Tuesday.
"Only the Japanese solution of testing every slaughtered cow or bull will eliminate prions from the food supply and restore consumer confidence," said Prusiner, who won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1997 for his discovery of prions, the malformed proteins believed responsible for mad cow disease.
The Bush administration has said broad-scale testing is not justified and has focused on safeguards such as banning use of sick and injured "downer" cattle as human food. The government announced last month that a case of mad cow had been detected in the U.S.
Formally named bovine spongiform encephalopathy, mad cow disease can be spread through consumption of contaminated meat. About 140 people, most of them in Great Britain, have died of the human form of the illness.
While U.S. officials have focused on ways to prevent the spread of mad cow, they fail to appreciate that prions can form spontaneously, Prusiner told members of the Food Safety Caucus, a bipartisan group in the House of Representatives.
Public health expert Glenn Morris, of the University of Maryland, sent written comments to the caucus that assessed the U.S risk of mad cow disease as virtually nonexistent. He said the threat from pathogens such as E. coli O157:H7 was much greater. Food-borne diseases kill 5,000 Americans a year.
Food-safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal of the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest recommended mad-cow tests for all cattle over 20 months of age, all animals showing signs of neurological disorders and all downer cattle at the farm.
The Agriculture Department says it will test nearly 40,000 cattle for mad cow this year, nearly double last year's tally. Tests are targeted toward older animals and downers. They are considered to most at risk of mad cow, which can take years to develop.
Older cattle account for 16 percent of the roughly 36 million U.S. cattle slaughtered each year.
Most beef-importing nations banned U.S. beef as soon as the mad cow case was announced, including Japan, South Korea and Mexico, the top three customers. U.S. beef exports were worth $3.8 billion in 2003.
It costs $50 to test each head of cattle for mad cow, the USDA says, a huge cost if the government were to test all cattle. Congress allotted $785 million for meat safety work this fiscal year. There are no reliable tests for live animals.
"It's scientifically not necessary, not justified and we don't want to go down that road because it diverts resources from where we really need to be putting them in doing surveillance and taking other risk mitigation measures for this disease," USDA trade advisor David Hegwood said on Monday when asked if the United States should test beef destined for Japan for mad cow.
Japan has discovered mad cow in two head of cattle less than two years old, Prusiner said.
If mad cow disease appears in cattle at the same rate as Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease , a similar neurological disease that occurs in humans, "we'd have 150 (mad) cows in one year," he said, before arguing Americans would be willing to pay a few cents a pound (kilogram) for testing.
"We need to know these animals are negative," Prusiner said.
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