US Faces Possible Mad Cow Risks
WASHINGTON (AFP) - While the United States has yet to record a case of mad cow disease or its human variant, meat eaters and producers alike are nonetheless expressing doubts about the effectiveness of US food testing procedures.
"Nobody could rule out the possibility" that the disease, known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), might eventually threaten the country, said Len Condon, vice president of the American Meat Association.
"Of course we are nervous about it ... There has been a very high level of alert in the United States," he said. "No cases have been found but everyone is looking for it."
For the moment, Condon said, the general public has not displayed any mad cow anxiety, seeing it as essentially "a European problem."
BSE has been linked to a fatal brain-wasting disorder in humans known as Creutzfeld-Jakob disease.
US beef consumption is expected to increase seven percent in value this year to reach 53 billion dollars, according to the Cattlemen's Beef Board.
But the US Department of Agriculture (USD) insists that it has imposed rigorous protective measures since the first case of disease was reported in Britain in 1986.
In 1997 the department banned imports of beef and live animal imports from Europe and stepped up its monitoring of livestock population, each year analyzing the brains of hundreds of animals that had exhibited suspect symptoms.
In 1996 the government banned meat and bone meal from animal feed offered to cattle on fears that it could contain prion, the agent that transmits BSE.
But according to Joseph Mendelson, legal director for the consumer group Center for Food Safety, "the USDA is not looking adequately at the herds."
The USDA between May 1990 and the end of last October carried out 11,700 tests on animal brains, according to official statistics.
But that figure, says Mendelson, is "ridiculously" low, considering that the US cattle herd numbers 98 million and that 30 million animals are slaughtered each year.
Even if the number of tests in the past 12 months has doubled to more than 2,000 this year, it pales when compared to the 200,000 tests conducted in Britain since 1986 on a vastly smaller herd.
Of the 200,000 animals tested in Britain, 80 percent, or 180,000, showed signs of BSE, according to a European diplomatic source.
Mendelson maintained that the USDA and other federal agencies had come under pressure from the meat industry "because they don't want to have an economic problem."
For John Stauber, author of a book entitled Mad Cow Disease: Could The Nightmare Happen Here?, "the situation in the United States is very dangerous because while we have not identified the strain of BSE known as mad cow disease and the variant in people, we do have many other strains of BSE in deer, elk and mink and sheep."
"There are probably 100 different strains of BSE and there is evidence they are transmissible."
In addition there are no regulations preventing the use of elk, sheep and even cow carcasses in the manufacture of meat and bone meal.
While such feed cannot be given to cattle, it is still authorized for chickens and pigs and for fish farms.
The number of deaths from Creutzfeld-Jakob disease in the United States from strains not linked to the consumption of beef -- and most prevalent in people over 50 -- came to 4,751 between 1979 and 1998, according to Dr. Lawrence Schonberger of the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia.
He stressed that there have been no detected instances of the disease that could be related to infected beef.
But, warned Stauber, "it's simply a question of time."
"It's inevitable because of the weakness of the controls ... and because the incubation period could take years," he said.

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