Beyond Belief - Bush May
Ease 'Downer Cattle' Ban

From Patricia Doyle, PhD
(Reuters) -- The Bush administration said on Friday it may allow some injured cattle to be slaughtered for human food, easing a regulation that the Agriculture Department (USDA) adopted 15 months ago after the nation's 1st case of mad cow disease.
Consumer groups said they oppose any changes in regulations aimed at keeping the deadly disease out of the food supply. The USDA prohibited all so-called downer cattle -- those too sick or injured to walk -- from being slaughtered for human food, soon after a Washington State dairy cow was diagnosed with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in December 2003. The ban was part of a package of tighter USDA regulations to prevent mad cow disease, whose symptoms can include an inability to walk.
Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns suggested that the ban on downer cattle may be eased after the USDA completes an enhanced surveillance program of US cattle later this year [2005]. "There is a compelling argument: If you've got an animal that's clearly under 30 months that broke a leg in transit, there is no threat of BSE whatsoever," Johanns told reporters after addressing the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "Why are we doing this? I'm going to thoughtfully consider those arguments," he added.
Scientists believe that mad cow disease is spread through contaminated livestock feed. Young animals are considered to pose the least risk of disease because BSE takes several years to incubate. The ban on downer cattle being slaughtered for human food represents a sizable financial loss to cattle ranchers. For example, a 1110 pound steer is worth around USD 1000 if slaughtered for steaks and ground beef, but brings less than USD 200 if condemned as a downer and used for pet food.
About 195 000 cattle are downers out of more than 30 million slaughtered annually, according to industry estimates. USDA officials previously said the department would review all of its anti-mad cow regulations after it completes an expanded testing program sometime in 2005. Johanns' comments on Friday were the most explicit to date of potential changes the government is examining.
"When we get to a point where we're ready to wrap up the increased surveillance and decide what next to do, I want to look at a range of issues," said Johanns, a former governor of Nebraska, a major cattle-producing state. Senator Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat, will take part in the review, he said.
No other cases of BSE have been found in the US cattle herd, despite expanded testing since June 2004. As of 10 Apr 2005, the USDA tested 314 394 animals in its expanded surveillance program. That will be completed in the next few months, opening the door for USDA to propose changes based on its findings.
Consumer advocates said cattle unable to walk should not be used for human consumption. "I'm not surprised to hear that the Bush administration might backtrack on important BSE protections if the surveillance program doesn't turn up additional positives," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Downer cattle represent less-healthy animals and should be kept out of the food supply," she added. Other farm groups have expressed concern that the ban on downer cattle could eventually lead to a similar restriction on pigs sent to slaughter.
The package of mad cow prevention measures adopted by the USDA 15 months ago included a ban on using brains and small intestines from older cattle for human food and a ban on stunning cattle with a powerful air injection to the skull. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is still considering whether to ban the use of cattle blood as a protein supplement for calves and the use of chicken litter as cattle feed.
[byline: Randy Fabi]
[First of all, this relaxation in the current policy has not been adopted; it is only a proposal being examined in the light of science and economics.
Unless you have ridden in the back of a cattle truck and understand the pressure of jostling around at highway speeds with lots of animals trying to remain standing, then you do not understand the difficulty these animals face. There are reasons that animals can fall, and can be injured. It does not mean they have a neurological disease. Other reasons for "downer cattle" include having a large calf, which can injure the obturator nerve as the calf squeezes through the birth canal. Though neurological disease is not a factor in the ratio of the size of the calf vs that of the birthing canal, a downer cow is the result. This is not brain-related neurological disease any more than if a severed spinal cord on an athlete resulted from a throw from his polo pony.
Although there are clearly some reasons unrelated to BSE that may result in an animal being termed a downer, there is also the risk that any relaxation in policy could be extended too far. Surely safeguards and strict guidelines would have to accompany the possible new rules.
With the current policy, the downers are probably being disposed of through their own "underground" or "black market", because they are not turning up at inspected slaughter facilities. The reasons these animals became downers still exist, but the use of these animals has changed.
Furthermore, one only has to check with pet food companies to realize their policy is "no downers." There are TSEs in cats, and we may some day discover a TSE in dogs. The pet food makers want no part of downers, so there is no reason to believe that downers are becoming pet food.
In addition, when the increased BSE surveillance was announced by USDA, many rendering companies did not want to take part for risk of a recall. The ability to hold a carcass until testing is complete has allowed the renderers to remain an active part of agriculture without the risk of a neurologically tainted product.
Relaxing the policy will require enormous hurdles to be overcome. Justification will have to be balanced with science. It may even mean that the large feedlots could become responsible for testing all of the slaughtered animals, which could open certain markets to Japan. It may also mean testing of animals under 30 months.
As to the concerns in the article that a ban on downer animals could be extended to swine, perhaps it should. In a recent study of swine, spongiform encephalopathy changes were noted in the brains of market swine, despite the absence of any outward signs of clinical neurological disease.
There are safety and economic issues to be considered. The public will have to understand that if we are to maintain a cheap food source, then reasonable concessions may have to be made. The public must come to grips with the realization that no activity -- including consumption of food -- has zero risk. The key is to realize that risk is relative. No one is discounting the horrible nature of vCJD, but we must remember that about 150 people dying from the disease in about 10 years represents a low risk. More Americans are killed by fatal car crashes in a month than have succumbed to vCJD in 10 years worldwide, yet I do not see Americans seeking to ban cars.
Perhaps it is possible to accept downer cattle into the food supply after they have been tested with a more specific test, such as western blot. Perhaps relaxing the current standards will result in testing any animal destined for human consumption. There are many acceptable ways to relax the standards from an economic standpoint and still maintain stringent food security. - Mod.TG
To play the role of devil's advocate here, the conclusion that all of the animals that break their legs while in transport are healthy reminds this moderator of polio cases "found" in Brazil back in '85 that treating physicians had classified as paralysis secondary to trauma. Of course the children had fallen (the cause of the trauma) as a result of the onset of paralysis that was related to poliovirus infection. At that time, because of NIDs (National Immunization Days) that had been held twice a year for the preceding 5 years, physicians (both clinical and within public health) were convince that there couldn't be polio cases any more given the high levels of vaccination coverage, and therefore flaccid paralysis had to be due to another etiology and not poliovirus infection.
The statement in the newswire that young animals are felt to be safe because it takes years to incubate the disease is a bit misleading, as infection of the animals has usually occurred at a young age -- it is the expression of the clinical disease that takes years to manifest. The younger animals were felt to be "safer" because they were born after feed regulations were imposed to eliminate/reduce infection of these animals through contaminated food products fed to the cattle.
A question that remains is whether an infected, as yet asymptomatic animal is not a risk for disease transmission across species (to humans eating products from that infected yet asymptomatic animal). Withholding testing for BSE by pre-supposing absolutely no risk of BSE under age 30 months is guaranteeing that one will not identify BSE in the under 30 months age group. The converse of "seek and ye shall find" -- "don't look and it ain't there". - Mod.MPP]
Patricia A. Doyle, PhD
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