- Even before the nation's first mad-cow case, few Americans
chose to dine on cow brains, spinal cords or intestines.
- Learning that those parts are most likely to carry the
disease only strengthens the aversion.
- But despite new rules adopted in December to keep the
riskiest tissues out of the food chain, some of the unsavory ingredients
can still wind up on the table, hidden behind innocuous labels like "beef
flavoring" or as accidental contamination in taco filling or processed
- People can get a fatal, human version of the disease
by eating tissue from infected animals, though no one knows what dose it
- Cows can become infected by eating less than one-thousandth
of an ounce of brain tissue from a sick animal, a panel of international
experts said in a report to the U.S. Department of Agriculture earlier
- The panel strongly recommended the United States consider
a total ban on brains and other high-risk tissue in human food. At the
least, the report said, the government should tighten restrictions significantly,
unless an aggressive mad-cow testing program proves the disease hasn't
spread in the cattle population.
- After the infected Holstein was discovered near Yakima
in December, the USDA quickly banned human consumption of the most dangerous
parts from cattle 30 months old or older: brains, spinal cords, eyes and
backbones. The tonsils and small intestines were banned from animals of
- Young cattle exempt
- But because only about 15 percent of cattle slaughtered
are over 30 months of age, the brains from 30 million animals a year can
still go into the human food supply.
- Most don't, though, because they're instead made into
animal and pet food. But fresh, canned and frozen brains can still be sold
in specialty markets and served in restaurants.
- Brains can also be used in headcheese and some other
processed meat products, as long as they're listed on the label. No label
is necessary when brains and spinal cords are cooked along with other ingredients
to make beef broth, beef flavoring and beef extracts.
- It's also still legal to include brains in nutritional
supplements called "glandulars."
- The new regulations allow processors to use machines
to scrape flesh from the backbone of cattle under 30 months of age. A meat
paste results that isn't supposed to contain bits of spinal cord. But sometimes
it does. It is used in a variety of products, from taco filling to pizza
toppings, hot dogs and some types of sausage and beef jerky.
- Up to consumers
- The only way consumers can find out if the paste is in
the food they're eating is to ask the producer or restaurant chain.
- In the United Kingdom, the European Union and Japan,
use of the scraping machines isn't allowed. The brains, spinal cords, eyes
and intestines from cattle of all ages are considered hazardous waste.
England incinerates the material because it isn't even allowed in landfills.
- The international panel, convened by Agriculture Secretary
Ann Veneman to evaluate the nation's mad-cow safeguards, said the U.S.
ban should be extended to cattle a year old or older. "A cutoff of
12 months represents a recognition of the fact that some cattle under 30
months of age may be slaughtered with infectivity present," the report
- The panel also said the high-risk tissues should not
be allowed in animal feed, which is blamed for spreading the disease among
- With an incubation period of two to eight years, mad-cow
disease is almost exclusively an ailment of older animals. But at least
84 head of cattle 30 months or younger tested positive during Britain's
cattle epidemic a decade ago.
- Last year, Japanese officials discovered mad-cow disease,
or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, in animals 21 and 23 months old.
- 'Not the best standard'
- "Clearly, the 30-month figure is one that's most
convenient for the industry but, in fact, it is not the best public-health
standard," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food-safety director at the
Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group. "These
things should not be allowed in the food chain."
- Members of a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel
last week called for a ban on brains in nutritional supplements. Panel
member Richard Johnson held up a bottle of capsules called "Body Fortress"
that he had bought at a Baltimore health-food store.
- "It contains raw brains," said the Johns Hopkins
University neurologist. "Anybody want to try it?"
- The ingredient was listed on the label, along with other
assorted cow organs, but in print so small "you need a hand lens to
read it," he said.
- At the same meeting, USDA veterinarian Lisa Ferguson
defended the 30-month ban, saying it eliminates the vast majority of potentially
infectious tissues from the food chain. Even if younger animals were infected,
the levels of mad-cow agent in their tissues would be so low, there's little
chance a person could get sick from eating them, she said.
- Even in Britain, where hundreds of thousands of cattle
were infected, only about 140 people have contracted the human form of
the disease, said Gary Weber of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
- Weber is confident that expanded mad-cow tests will confirm
the level of infection in cattle is so minimal that a stricter ban, comparable
with those in Europe, won't be necessary.
- Compromise for now
- The international panel agreed the 30-month ban "is
a reasonable, temporary compromise," while the U.S. changes its testing
- The 30-month cutoff is based largely on experiments in
England, where cows were fed infected brain tissue from other cattle, then
killed at different intervals. Tissues were checked for infection, then
injected into mice to see if they could transmit the disease.
- Those studies showed the disease agent could reach infectious
levels in the tonsils and a portion of the small intestine within six to
10 months of exposure, long before the animal tested positive for mad-cow
or showed symptoms. That's why the USDA decided to keep those organs out
of the human-food supply, regardless of age.
- In general, though, other tissues didn't become dangerous
until the animals were in the end stages of the disease: 32 months or more
- None of the experiments found any danger in milk or the
muscle meat that makes up the cuts of beef people eat.
- Consumer advocates say they worry most about the meat-scraping
machinery used on younger cattle, because of its potential to contaminate
meat with bits of spinal cord. When USDA inspectors conducted tests at
processing plants in 2002, they found contamination in more than one-third
of samples and at more than 75 percent of the facilities.
- Enforcement pays off
- Since then, the agency has instituted a sampling and
enforcement program that has significantly reduced the problem, said spokesman
Steven Cohen. Tests in 2003 found spinal cord in less than 7 percent of
- Federal officials say the 30-month ban represents an
abundance of caution, because only a single sick animal - which contracted
the disease in Canada - has been found in the United States. They cite
a Harvard University analysis that concludes mad-cow disease is highly
unlikely to spread in the U.S. the way it did in Europe.
- However, that study also concluded a stricter human-food
ban would make the slight risk of human exposure here even slighter - lowering
it by 95 percent.
- And in the Feb. 5 New England Journal of Medicine, British
mad-cow expert Christl Donnelly said the government can do more to protect
the public, though the odds anyone will contract the disease are low.
- "Consumers should press authorities to test more
cattle, to strengthen the regulations on feed production and to extend
the ban on brain and spinal cord in food for human consumption to include
cattle younger than 30 months," she wrote.
- Where do cow brains go?
- Uses of brain and spinal-cord material: * Headcheese
and some processed meats * Beef broth * Beef flavoring and extract * Animal
and pet food * Nutritional supplements
- Dangerous cow parts
- European scientists estimated where mad-cow infectiousness
resides in a sick cow: * Brain - 64 percent * Spinal cord - 26 percent
* Other central-nervous-system tissue - 6.4 percent * Small intestine -
3 percent * Eyes and other parts - less than 1 percent Source: European
Commission Scientific Steering Committee
- Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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