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From: TSS (
Date: August 11, 2004 at 1:52 pm PST

Posted on Wed, Aug. 11, 2004


U.S. still failing mad cow test

Federal government has yet to implement promised safeguards

The system created to protect Americans from contaminated foods is broken.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are charged with protecting meat eaters and any of us who use products containing animal ingredients, such as cosmetics and supplements. Where mad cow disease is concerned, they have failed to do their job.

After the discovery of the nation's first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, late last year, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said actions would be taken to protect consumers from the fatal, brain-wasting disease that can be transmitted from cows to humans.

Among the steps promised:

• High-risk animal materials such as brains and spinal cords would be kept out of FDA-regulated foods, dietary supplements and cosmetics.

• The practice of feeding cow blood to calves would be restricted.

• Feeding of hen-house litter, including chicken manure and bits of feed, to cows would be prohibited. The litter could pass to cows the prions that cause BSE.

• The use of parts from sick cows, called "downers," from FDA-regulated foods, dietary supplements and cosmetics would be banned.

After more than five months, not one of these safeguards was in place.

Then, last month, in a joint USDA-FDA news conference, the agencies announced that action on the bulk of these protections would be further delayed -- possibly until 2006 -- as the proposals are put through another round of the rulemaking process.

Only the ban on the use of high-risk animal parts in foods, supplements and cosmetics was enacted. But the ban only pertains to materials from cows older than 30 months. Since most are slaughtered before that age, the restriction has minimal effect.

On the USDA side, the list of failures continues to mount. Among them:

• Major flaws in USDA's BSE surveillance program make it impossible to determine whether BSE is present in U.S. cattle and, if so, at what level, according to a damning draft audit report by USDA's inspector general released last week.

• After banning importation of cows and cow by-products in countries where BSE has been found, USDA permitted millions of pounds of prohibited beef products to be brought into the United States from Canada and distributed, without notice, to consumers.

• A cow showing signs of central nervous system problems was ordered by an agency official in Texas to be disposed of without being tested for BSE, despite assurances from USDA that all such animals would be tested.

Consumer groups have been highly critical.

Jean Halloran, who helps lead Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, said on the day of the agencies' announcement: "They know what needs to be done and how to do it. This further delay needlessly puts public health at risk."

The punch line to this sick joke comes from France.

A recently published study says French agriculture officials failed to detect for years the spread of mad cow disease among French herds. As a result, meat from almost 50,000 cows infected with BSE was sold to French consumers, say the study's authors.

Why? Largely because French regulators were late in adopting a policy of active surveillance for BSE and late to adopt measures to stop the feeding of cattle products to other cattle, the study says.

The French picture resembles the situation in the U.S. today.

We rely on our federal agencies, through the elected officials who govern them, to monitor and assure the safety of our food supply. When it comes to beef, they are clearly failing.

The result: We are all at risk, and the onus is on each of us now to educate and protect ourselves.
Suzanne Havala Hobbs is a registered dietitian and a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy at UNC;;


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