Debate Over U.S. Food Safety Regulations on Simmer
Nov. 24WASHINGTON The latest scare over a suspected case of mad cow disease has reignited the fierce debate over the federal government's efforts to protect the nation's food supply.
Despite the reassuring news Tuesday that an unidentified cow had not contracted bovine spongiform encephalopathy, the cattle industry and consumer advocates remain at odds over whether new federal rules are adequate to control the brain-wasting disease.
After a Holstein cow in Washington state was confirmed last year as the nation's first, and only, case of mad cow disease, the Bush administration dramatically expanded testing and imposed new rules to try to ensure that suspect animals don't enter the human food chain.
While the American Meat Institute dubbed Tuesday's test results "proof positive" the new safeguards are working well, the Center for Food Safety views this latest scare as "a warning shot."
"This one was determined to be negative, but it certainly underscores the question of when is the next one going to be positive," said Craig Culp, a spokesman for the Center for Food Safety.
After last year's case of mad cow, the U.S. Department of Agriculture banned all "downer" cattle, animals that cannot stand on their own, from the human food supply. The USDA also prohibited use of certain high-risk organs, more likely to harbor the disease, from animals over 30 months of age.
At the same time, the agency launched a program to increase testing for the disease more than tenfold, to about 250,000 animals annually.
Since June 1, the USDA has screened more than 121,000 animals for mad cow disease.
Three of those tests produced "inconclusive" initial results, all of which later proved to be negative.
The number of animals tested, however, still represents only a small percentage of the 45 million adult cattle in the United States.
Japan tests all beef cattle, while Britain screens about 70 percent.
U.S. officials insist universal testing is not necessary because there has never been a major outbreak of the disease here, as there was in Britain.
Instead, they target their testing to include those animals most likely to be suffering from the disease: animals showing some kind of neurological problem, downer cattle and cattle over 30 months of age.
Tests cost about $60 a head, when transportation, paperwork and other factors are added in, industry groups say.
The meat institute, which represents meat packers and processors, estimates the number of at-risk cattle at about 446,000. Officials at the meat institute calculate that testing only 201,000 animals a year would give regulators a 95 percent confidence rate they would detect the disease if occurrence were only 1 in 10 million.
"The danger is so immeasurably small it can't even be quantified," argued Randy Huffman, vice president for scientific affairs for the American Meat Institute Foundation, the trade group's research and education arm.
Burt Rutherford with the Texas Cattle Feeders Association in Amarillo contends the industry has "a real good handle" on how to deal with mad cow disease.
"We're going to continue to produce the safest food supply in the world," he said.
The cost of a mistake could be horrific.
Humans who eat beef products contaminated with mad cow disease can contract a similar illness, known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. The United States has seen only one reported case of the disease, a woman who had lived in Britain but developed symptoms while living here, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The Center for Food Safety argues that mad cow disease can develop in animals as young as 20 months.
Scientists believe mad cow is most frequently transmitted by cows eating contaminated food. To help guard against such a spread of the disease, the FDA back in 1997 banned feed companies from using mammalian protein in feed for cattle and other ruminant animals.
Consumer groups have long questioned how well the industry has complied with that regulation.
Michael Hansen, a research biologist for Consumers Union, pointed to a study conducted by what is now the Government Accountability Office, which suggested widespread ignorance of the rules.
The FDA released figures Tuesday that show regulators had inspected 14,853 firms, 23 percent of which handled materials banned from cattle feed.
Of the 3,444 firms handling the potentially contaminated materials, regulators found 16 whose practices were deemed so objectionable that sanctions were warranted.
An additional 89 had less-serious problems, such as minor bookkeeping errors, the FDA records show.
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