Mad Cow Disease Could Slip Into US
By Cat Lazaroff
Environment News Service

WASHINGTON, DC (ENS) - Federal actions aimed at preventing mad cow disease from entering the United States do not ensure that the disease will be kept out, finds a new report by the General Accounting Office. The report by the investigative arm of Congress also warns that the U.S. could not guarantee rapid detection of the disease if it did cross the nation's borders.
Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease, is an always fatal, neuro-degenerative disease that has been found in cattle in 23 countries around the world. Cattle contract the disease through animal feed that contains protein derived from the remains of diseased animals.
Cows may develop Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, if they are given feed containing tissues from infected animals (Photo by Brian Prechtel courtesy USDA)
Scientists generally believe an equally fatal disease in humans - known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease (vCJD) - is linked to eating beef from cattle infected with BSE. Just over 100 people have died from vCJD, one of a family of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies.
Both diseases have long incubation periods during which they are undetectable - two to eight years in cattle and possibly up to 30 years in humans.
For more than a decade, the federal agencies responsible for ensuring the safety of the public and the nation's food supply have been working to prevent BSE from entering the U.S., and creating mechanisms for detecting and tracking the disease if it should appear here.
But a new report from the General Accounting Office (GAO) finds that while BSE has not yet been found in the United States, "federal actions do not sufficiently ensure that all BSE infected animals or products are kept out or that if BSE were found, it would be detected promptly and not spread to other cattle through animal feed or enter the human food supply."
Despite regulations which bar imports of beef from countries where the disease has been found, tons of beef has entered the U.S. from such nations, because it was imported before the disease was detected. In fact, the United States has imported about 125 million pounds of beef and about 1,000 cattle from countries that later discovered BSE - during the period when BSE would have been incubating in those nations.
In addition, new sources of BSE contamination may continue to enter the U.S., because of weaknesses in import controls such as an insufficient number of inspectors and inspection facilities to manage a growing load of overseas imports.
Validating tests for mad cow disease at a lab in Geel, Belgium (Photo courtesy EU Joint Research Center)
The GAO report was requested by three U.S. Senators last fall, after a report by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis concluded that BSE is extremely unlikely to become established in the United States and that, if introduced here, it would be eliminated within 20 years.
The authors of that study acknowledged that their conclusions were based on a number of assumptions, including confidence in U.S. measures to prevent the introduction and spread of BSE.
The new report by the GAO casts doubt on the Harvard conclusions, and suggests further measures that federal agencies should take to keep BSE out of the U.S.
For example, the report notes that the United States has a more permissive feed ban than other countries - one that bars proteins from cattle, pigs and chickens, but allows cattle feed to contain proteins from horses and pigs. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is now reviewing whether these ingredients should also be banned in cattle feed.
Banned feed products may still be served at some cattle ranches, the GAO found.
"FDA has not acted promptly to compel firms to keep prohibited proteins out of cattle feed and to label animal feed that cannot be fed to cattle," the report notes.
Calling FDA's data on inspections "severely flawed," the GAO said it found some noncompliant firms "that had not been reinspected for two or more years and instances when no enforcement action had occurred even though the firms had been found noncompliant on multiple inspections."
In 1997, the FDA banned the use of most mammalian proteins in food for cattle, sheep and goats (Photo by Larry Rana, courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture)
These inspection lapses could put the public at risk, the GAO explained, because "consumers do not always know when foods and other products they use may contain central nervous system tissue, which, according to scientific experts, could pose a health risk if taken from diseased animals."
As in most countries that are BSE free, the United States allows cattle brains and other central nervous system tissue to be sold as human food.
The GAO also criticized the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), noting it does not test many animals that die on farms, despite the fact that experts consider these animals to be a high risk population for BSE.
However, the GAO recognized that the USDA acted as many as five years earlier than other countries to impose controls over imports of animals and animal feed ingredients from countries that had experienced BSE.
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman defended the agency's efforts, saying the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) "have been aggressive and proactive for well over a decade to prevent BSE from entering the United States."
"While we support the GAO's efforts to examine ways to strengthen the government's ongoing efforts to prevent BSE, the report fails to appropriately recognize the conclusions and recommendations made last year by Harvard University in its comprehensive, three year study on BSE," Veneman said. The USDA is now supporting a peer review of the Harvard study to determine the accuracy of the approaches and assumptions of its models.
"In examining recommendations, the GAO report does not appropriately consider the additional actions that have been taken by federal agencies to strengthen BSE programs," Veneman added.
Health and Human Services Secretary, Tommy Thompson (Photo courtesy Office of the Secretary)
Last year, Veneman and HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson outlined a series of actions to reduce the risk of BSE entering the U.S., including doubling testing for BSE in cattle this year, and adding tests of cattle that die on farms.
Increased funding proposed by the Bush administration would boost surveillance efforts and increase the number of inspectors available to test imported goods for BSE.
"We continue to take strong actions and keep our vigilance high to prevent this disease from entering this country," said Thompson. "If we ever did face a situation, we want to ensure that strong systems are in place to prevent its potential spread to the animal or human food chain."
So far, no cases of BSE have been detected in the U.S. However, in March 2001, a flock of sheep infected with a condition closely related to mad cow disease was confiscated from a Vermont farm by the USDA.
These Vermont sheep, imported from Belgium and the Netherlands in 1996, were found to carry scrapie, a form of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (Photo courtesy USDA)
The economic impacts of a BSE outbreak in the United States could be severe, according to federal economists. Beef exports and domestic beef consumption would drop, with many consumers refusing to eat beef served at U.S. restaurants or available in U.S. made products.
Regarding effects on human health, "If BSE infected cattle were to enter the food supply, some people might develop vCJD," warned the GAO. "However, experts disagree about the number of people who would be affected. While many believe that vCJD is very difficult to contract, so that relatively few people would develop it, some experts believe that, because of the long incubation period, no one can predict whether few or many might contract vCJD."
The GAO recommends that the USDA and FDA take steps to strengthen enforcement of the feed ban, develop a coordinated strategy to increase inspections of imported goods, and alert consumers when products may contain central nervous system tissue.
For more information about BSE, visit: http://www.aphis/
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