Dr. Robert Lull's Call
For BSE Testing Of
All US Cattle Open Forum
By Dr. Robert Lull, Steve Heilig
Mad cow disease remains a worrying mystery. Meat from infected animals can infect consumers with prions, which cause variant Creutzfeldt- Jakob disease, a progressive degeneration of the brain that is always fatal.
Mad cow disease (the common term for bovine spongiform encephalopathy) is caused by prions, the infectious misshapen proteins discovered by University of California researcher Stanley Prusiner, who received a Nobel Prize in Medicine for his groundbreaking work. Prusiner has referred to BSE-related diseases as "new, strange and scary."
Unfortunately, it seems that some governmental officials and agricultural leaders are not so worried about the threat that prion diseases such as BSE present -- not only to animals, but to humans as well. A human outbreak of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, caused by eating prion-contaminated beef from cattle with BSE, killed approximately 150 people in England in the 1990s. At that time, up to a third of British herds were found to be contaminated before the infection was controlled.
The one cow found to test positive in the United States in December unleashed a flurry of concern here, with much confusion over how much of a threat that case might have posed. Equally disturbing were varying allegations that the beef industry and governmental regulators were not being entirely forthcoming about the details of this case and were trying to reassure the public without enough scientific evidence to do so. There admittedly is much scientific uncertainty about how much a threat BSE poses to humans.
In recognition of that uncertainty, Japan has taken the BSE threat seriously and now routinely tests all slaughtered cattle and sheep for the presence of prion infection. The U.S. government persists in much more limited testing -- fewer than 1 percent of all cows are so tested -- arguing that scientific uncertainty makes universal testing too expensive. Yet Consumers Union has testified that such testing would add, at most, five cents a pound to the cost of beef. But Creekstone Farms in Kansas, seeking to certify its beef BSE-free and thus be able to sell it to Japan as well as concerned consumers here, have been threatened by the U.S. Department of Agriculture with legal action and severe fines to stop them from testing all their cattle for the BSE-causing prion. New tests can detect such prions in a short enough time to allow use on all animals at the time of slaughter.
Why would USDA oppose such testing? If it is positive, that would be good for human safety (one of the USDA's missions); but it could also trigger public reaction bad for the beef industry's profits. Wouldn't USDA be happy that any infected animal was detected before infecting a human? What possible justification can they have for denying beef producers who want to test every cow, at their own cost, in order to sell safety-certified beef?
At this time, testing all cows slaughtered for human consumption for the presence of BSE prions rather than late-stage full-blown neurological disease -- which is the only test now used by the USDA -- makes good sense as a public health precaution until more data are accumulated on the new rapid tests for BSE prions. This is why the San Francisco Medical Society supports this position -- as does Prusiner, the Nobel winner.
While the details of the threat are being determined, it is time to err on the side of safety, rather than on assurances from beef industry spokesmen. If it does turn out that testing 100 percent of animals is not warranted, good -- the standards could then be relaxed, and we'd all be safe rather than sorry. Right now, though, despite all assurances from those in charge, we just don't know.
Even if we cannot test all cattle, certainly there is no good reason to keep a ban on voluntary testing by responsible members of the cattle industry. This would provide consumers with a real choice regarding the safety of their beef products. It would also allow our cattle industry to reopen the markets now closed for beef sales in Japan and other countries that insist each slaughtered animal be certified negative for prions.
Congress and the public need to send our agricultural regulators at the USDA a strong message about their obligation to public health -- and consumer choice. Leading scientists agree that eating prions is a bad idea. If your doctor told you an inexpensive test could reduce your risk of contracting something that would kill you, you'd ask for that test. Likewise, isn't it time we pay the extra nickel per pound to be sure the beef we eat is free of a fatal disease?
Robert Lull, M.D., is professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, chief of Nuclear Medicine at San Francisco General Hospital and a past president of the San Francisco Medical Society. Steve Heilig is co-editor of the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, director of Public Health and Education for the San Francisco Medical Society and co-director of the Collaborative on Health and the Environment.
©2005 San Francisco Chronicle



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