U.S. May Need Animal-Health Czar to Protect Consumers
WASHINGTON Consolidating U.S. animal disease oversight under one high-level government czar may be the best way to protect consumers from mad cow disease, bird flu and other serious animal ailments that can jump species, a National Academy of Sciences panel said Monday.
The Academy's National Research Council, which advises the U.S. government on scientific and environmental matters, criticized the current animal health system as too convoluted at a time when new diseases are emerging and experts worry about bioterrorism targeted at the food supply.
More than 200 different U.S. government offices, seven Cabinet-level departments and hundreds of state and local agencies share in the responsibility of regulating animal health.
"To strengthen the existing framework, the nation should establish a high-level, authoritative mechanism to coordinate interactions between the private sector and local, state and federal agencies," the panel said.
The agriculture secretary has been the main point-person for recent U.S. outbreaks of mad cow disease, chronic wasting disease and a less-virulent strain of avian influenza. Almost three-quarters of animal diseases can infect humans, according to the National Research Council panel led by Lonnie King, dean of veterinary medicine at Michigan State University.
Humans can contract a form of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, by eating infected meat.
The H5N1 strain of bird flu in chickens and ducks has been linked to more than 50 human deaths in Asia since 2003. The World Health Organization has warned that bird flu could kill millions of people if it mutates and acquires the ability to pass easily from human to human.
The committee of independent scientists stopped short of recommending that the Bush administration create a new senior job for overseeing animal diseases, saying it has not yet completed its evaluation of the U.S. animal health system.
The government could also centralize authority by creating an interagency alliance or a domestic version of the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), it said.
The scientists also said they found "significant delays" in developing and adopting new technologies that would help detect serious animal diseases.
The panel supports a more comprehensive livestock identification system and research to develop a "live animal" test for preventing mad cow disease.
Last month, the USDA revised its testing program on the brains of slaughtered cattle to include a more sophisticated test already in use in Europe and Asia.
The administration took the action after acknowledging it had misdiagnosed a "downer" Texas beef cow using its testing protocol in November. The animal tested positive for the disease last month using the more sophisticated test.
"This case raises questions about the type and accuracy of diagnostic tests used by USDA," the committee said. It did not elaborate.
The committee also raised concerns about the steady decline of veterinarians in federal and state agencies. "The work force on the frontlines of animal care is not adequately educated and trained to deal with animal disease issues," it said.
The USDA predicts a shortfall of several hundred veterinarians on its staff by 2007, as more professionals are attracted to caring for pets and companion animals rather than livestock, the 237-page report said.