Americans Wake Up To Threat
Of Mad Cow Disease
By Greg McCune

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Americans are suddenly waking up to the threat the deadly mad cow disease ravaging Europe could pose to an icon of their culture -- the hamburger.
This is, after all, the land of meat-eaters in search of a fast-food fix at a McDonald's restaurant, the land of the cowboy and of a president, George W. Bush, who retreats to his Texas cattle ranch to get away from it all.
While the triumph of vegetarians has long been predicted, Americans still are among the world's leading carnivores, each eating nearly 100 pounds (45 kg) of beef and veal a year. Beef was expected to feature prominently on the menu of many parties celebrating the leading American sporting event of the year, the professional football championship "Super Bowl" on Sunday.
Until recently, the alarming spread of the brain-destroying illness known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), from Britain to several continental European countries -- and the scare that has turned Europeans off beef en masse -- had barely registered on the American radar screen.
No case of mad cow disease has ever been found in the United States and government and industry officials have repeatedly pledged to keep it that way. British officials at first denied the disease could spread to humans but have since admitted it could when more than 80 people died of a human version called new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease after eating infected beef. Three people have died in France.
Just a whiff of trouble over mad cow disease on this side of the Atlantic was enough last week to send a shudder through U.S. agribusiness and some markets. Cattle futures prices and the shares of McDonald's fell on Thursday after the Food and Drug Administration announced it had quarantined some cattle in Texas on suspicion they had been fed rations containing cattle parts in violation of rules to prevent mad cow disease.
There was no suggestion that the cattle actually had contracted the disease, only that they had been fed the wrong rations. A leading producer of animal feed, Purina Mills Inc., admitted on Friday that it had produced the feed containing meat and bone meal from ruminant animals, and said it halted the use of such meat and bone meal in all its feed.
Scientists believe one way mad cow disease can be transmitted is through a cannibal-like feeding to cattle of ground up parts of other cattle or ruminants, a practice the U.S. has banned since 1997.
"I can't imagine what would happen if ever we had a suspected case here in the U.S.," said Chuck Levitt, senior livestock analyst for Alaron Trading Corp in Chicago. "What a calamity that would be for the industry."
The U.S. cattle herd is nearly 100 million animals, the single largest segment of U.S. agriculture. The production of grain-fed beef in the United States is among the most intensive in the world with massive feedlots containing thousands of cattle in close quarters.
Some of the feedlots are so large that visitors to the towns on the plains of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska where most are located, can smell the distinctive manure from miles away depending on the direction of the wind.
In Europe, intensive agriculture has come under attack as helping to spread mad cow disease.
Food safety advocates said the Texas quarantine has highlighted loopholes in U.S. efforts to prevent mad cow disease. They are skeptical of government and industry assurances that the disease could never happen here, citing the failure of similar food pledges in the past.
Last summer, after repeated U.S. government and industry assurances that the use of gene-modified grain in U.S. foods was not a problem, a significant scare erupted over a gene-altered corn variety not approved for human consumption because it was suspected of causing allergies.
The discovery of the unapproved corn variety, Starlink, in dozens of foods such as taco shells prompted a massive food recall and caused major disruption to the U.S. domestic and international grain marketing system.
In the last two weeks, U.S. media have begun to highlight the mad cow scare in Europe with prominent stories in newspapers and on television, including a feature on ABC TV's leading evening news program that asked: "Are Americans Safe From Mad Cow?"
The answer to that question, according to government and industry, is yes. But food safety advocates are not so sure.
"The government agencies say they have erected this firewall (against mad cow). We don't have a firewall. It's more like a white picket fence," said Michael Hansen, a research associate with the Consumers Union in Washington.
The United States has not imported any meat or bone meal from Britain for a decade, which U.S. officials said was an important move to prevent the disease crossing the Atlantic. It also has banned imports of meat from Europe.
But critics such as Hansen said the possibility exists of a home-grown variety of mad cow disease.
At least two maladies of the same general family as mad cow are present in the United States -- scrapie in sheep, and chronic wasting disease in some wild deer and elk.
Furthermore, the FDA has said that the rules banning the feeding of ruminant meat and bone meal to cattle have been flouted. The cattle industry has called for a "zero tolerance" policy to get producers of feed to comply with the rules.
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association has called an emergency meeting for Monday in Washington of feed industry and government officials to underscore the need for vigilance.
"If there are folks that don't understand the seriousness of the situation, they need to be brought to understand that," the organization's chief executive Charles Schroeder told Reuters in a recent interview.

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