- Government's Long-Overdue Reforms Do Not Go Far Enough,
Public Citizen Says
- WASHINGTON, D.C. - The U.S.
Department of Agriculture (USDA) has misled the public about the effectiveness
of its approach to prevent mad cow disease in the United States, Peter
Lurie, M.D., deputy director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group,
told the USDA today. In a letter to USDA Secretary Ann Veneman, Lurie said
that in a number of crucial areas, the agency has overstated the impact
of new rules, falsely reassuring the public.
- The USDA has repeatedly claimed that its testing and
surveillance system has been able to detect bovine spongiform encephalopathy
(BSE), also known as mad cow disease, if it occurs in one in a million
- That claim is false, Lurie said, because it rests on
an assumption the USDA knows is incorrect: that BSE exists only in downer
cows (those cows that are too sick to walk).
- Data from Europe show that although the BSE risk is higher
in downer cattle, hundreds of animals that appear normal have also tested
positive for BSE. But, because there are so many more normal-appearing
cattle than downers, there is more overall BSE risk among normal cattle
than among downer cattle. Using a statistical analysis, Lurie showed that
removing all downer cows from the food system, as the USDA has now done,
cuts out only 12 percent of the total BSE risk.
- Moreover, on Tuesday, the U.S. House Committee on Government
Reform questioned whether the cow with BSE that was discovered in Washington
state in late 2003 was really a downer, as the USDA has repeatedly claimed.
The USDA will have to test a mix of downer and non-downer animals to truly
detect the one in a million risk, Lurie wrote.
- "Removing downer cattle from human consumption was
appropriate, because the animals are more risky," Lurie said. "But
the overall risk to the public was only slightly reduced, and the benefit
to the public's safety has been oversold."
- Lurie also questioned the overall effectiveness of the
USDA's decision to permit use of advanced meat recovery (AMR) only in cattle
younger than 30 months. AMR uses belts and bone presses to remove the last
scraps of meat from a carcass and is risky because the muscle tissue it
retrieves is often contaminated with nerve tissue that is the most infectious
part of a BSE-affected animal.
- Although the USDA presents this new restriction as a
food safety issue, in reality all the agency has done is change the labeling
- The USDA has ruled that products that have been retrieved
by AMR from younger cattle and are contaminated with spinal cord cannot
carry the designation "meat." However, the rules permit this
product to be called "beef," so it is conceivable that beef stock,
extract and flavoring could contain spinal cord.
- The agency's rules also still allow unprocessed spinal
cord or brain from cattle under 30 months to be sold as food for humans.
Lurie recommended a total ban on such products, or at minimum that they
be clearly labeled and that consumers be warned of the risk of BSE.
- "The USDA's response to the recent mad cow case
has been characterized at least as much by concern for the beef industry
as it has been by concern for public health," Lurie said. "It
is time for the USDA to come clean with the American public."
- Both Lurie and Sidney Wolfe, M.D., director of Public
Citizen's Health Research Group and a co-signer of the letter, are former
members of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's advisory committee on
BSE. A copy of their letter is available on the Web at
- Public Citizen is a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization
based in Washington, D.C. For more information, please visit
- http:// www.citizen.org.