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From: TSS (
Subject: USDA document cites young mad cow cases and concerns for TSE in young bovine
Date: August 23, 2004 at 9:52 am PST

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: USDA document cites young mad cow cases
Date: Mon, 23 Aug 2004 11:54:08 -0500
From: "Terry S. Singeltary Sr."
To: Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy

USDA document cites young mad cow cases

By Steve Mitchell
United Press International

Published 8/23/2004 12:17 PM

WASHINGTON, Aug. 23 (UPI) -- Department of Agriculture officials, in the wake of the first U.S. case of mad cow disease last December, have insisted it would be unlikely to find the deadly disease in cows under 30 months of age, but a 1990 document obtained by United Press International shows the agency once held a different view.

The document, "Emergency Programs Alert," issued by USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in May 1990, acknowledges that cows as young as 22 months were infected during the mad cow outbreak in the United Kingdom and suggests the agency was concerned about the possibility of young cases occurring in the United States.

The document was distributed to USDA veterinarian inspectors to assist them in recognizing cases of mad cow. It describes the outbreak of the disease in the United Kingdom and states: "Age of affected cattle at onset ranged from 1 year 10 months to 15 years."

The alert was issued the same month and year the USDA first began testing cattle brains for mad cow disease. It urges veterinarians to collect a brain sample from any cattle showing signs of the disease and does not specify any limitations on age.

"This appears to be a 'smoking gun' document which shows that the agency knew at one time at least that animals younger than 30 months were affected by the disease," Michael Hansen, a biologist and senior research associate with the watchdog group Consumers Union in Yonkers, N.Y., told UPI.

Lester Friedlander, a former USDA veterinarian who was with the agency in 1990, said that type of document was used to inform veterinarian inspectors of the characteristics of diseases they might encounter during inspection.

At that time, there was no age cut-off for testing, Friedlander told UPI.

"They did not give us any kind of age limitation," he said. "Any animal that showed signs of mad cow ... should be suspect," he said.

USDA officials have said it is unlikely cows under age 30 months -- even if infected -- would test positive. The agency's new surveillance plan, launched June 1, focuses almost exclusively on older animals. In addition, the USDA recently blocked a private firm -- Creekstone Farms of Arkansas City, Kan. -- from testing its own cattle, in part because nearly all of the cattle were under the age of 30 months.

Asked whether the 1990 document indicated the agency once was concerned about the possibility that younger cows could carry this disease, USDA spokeswoman Julie Quick told UPI, "Keep in mind this was 14 years ago and we've learned a lot about the disease since then."

Quick added, "We do know its extremely rare for the disease to manifest itself" in younger animals.

Hansen's group has urged the USDA to test all animals over age 20 months because that is the youngest age at which the disease has been detected worldwide. He noted there have been several cases in younger animals during the U.K. outbreak, which began in the 1980s.

"Those are indications that it does happen that young," Hansen said. "Even if the young animals aren't exhibiting symptoms, they're still incubating and animals incubating disease can still be infectious," he said. "That should cause us to increase our level of concern, not decrease it."

Another reason for testing younger animals is currently available tests are more sensitive and can detect infection earlier than tests available in 1990, Hansen said.

More than 85 animals worldwide ages 30 months or under have tested positive for the disease, including a 20-month-old cow in 1992 in the United Kingdom -- the youngest case ever recorded. Three infected animals in Europe have been under the age of 30 months. In addition, two young cows in Japan -- 21 and 23 months old -- tested positive last year.

The USDA requires the removal of the most infectious parts of cows, such as brains and spinal cords, to protect consumers, but animals under the age of 30 months are exempt from this requirement. Intestines, which can also be infectious, are required to be removed from all animals.

The agency's current screening focus on animals over 30 months means any infected animals under that age and not showing obvious symptoms will not be targeted for testing and could go undetected and even approved for human consumption.

The concern is humans can contract a fatal brain illness called variant Creutzfeldt Jakob disease from eating beef products contaminated with the mad cow agent. More than 150 people worldwide have contracted the illness, but no cases have been linked to consumption of U.S. beef. There has been only one confirmed mad cow case in the United States.

Quick said it was uncertain how many cows between the ages of 20 to 30 months are in the United States. USDA data suggest it could be several million. Of the 35.5 million cows slaughtered last year, 28.7 million were under 24 months of age.

Despite the cases in the young animals worldwide, USDA officials have sought to downplay the possibility of such an event happening in U.S. herds. Ron DeHaven, administrator of USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, asked about such cases by UPI during a Dec. 31, 2003, conference call with journalists, said, "the likelihood of animals under 30 months of having the disease is extremely remote."

DeHaven went on to downplay the two infected young animals discovered in Japan last year. "It would be premature to modify any national program based on those two animals," he said.

He acknowledged that two animals under 30 months had tested positive in the European Union in 2001 and 2002, but minimized their significance, too, saying one cow was 28 months old and one was 29 months and both were "very close to the 30-month timeframe."

The USDA's acknowledgement of the young infected animal in the May 1990 document did not persist for long. An agency "Fact Sheet" on mad cow disease, issued just one month later in June 1990 -- which also was obtained by UPI -- does not mention that infected cows as young as 22 months have been detected. In fact, the document does not make any reference to the age at which cattle may develop the disease and states the agency has an ongoing surveillance program focused on cows 24 months of age and older.

The next earliest fact sheet UPI was able to obtain is dated February 1994. It contains no reference to the cases of mad cow disease in 22 month old cows in the United Kingdom, and instead states that the disease is found predominantly in cows 36 months of age and older. "Most cases in England have occurred in dairy cows between 3 and 5 years of age," the Fact Sheet states. The same statement is employed on USDA's most current Fact Sheet, dated February, 2002.

"It's another tidbit where you have to wonder whether the USDA didn't want to find (mad cow disease)," said Felicia Nestor, an independent food safety consultant who works with the watchdog group Public Citizen in Washington, D.C., and has monitored the USDA's response to mad cow for several years.

"Periodically, there's a flicker of recognition that something may be a problem and then they (USDA officials) find a way to ignore it," Nestor told UPI. "It seems like that (the 1990 document) was another one."

Quick said the USDA has put "firewalls" in place to help prevent the disease from taking hold in U.S. herds. In addition to the USDA's ban on importing cows from countries known to have mad cow disease, the Food and Drug Administration banned the practice of feeding cattle tissue to cattle, which can amplify the disease among herds, she said.

The Government Accountability Office concluded in a 2002 report, however, that the feed ban had not been sufficiently enforced to prevent the spread of the disease among herds, and the FDA issued three warning letters as recently as June of this year to firms that were violating the ban.

The European Food Safety Authority concluded in a report released Friday that it was likely U.S. cows were infected with mad cow disease due to the import of infected live cattle and feed during the 1980s and early 1990s, and raised its risk assessment of mad cow disease in the United States from "unlikely" to "likely but not confirmed or confirmed at a lower level."

Quick said the United States probably would not experience the type of extensive outbreak in Europe and the United Kingdom, but she conceded, "We don't know the prevalence" of the disease in U.S. herds and "we do expect to find a few additional cases."


Steve Mitchell is UPI's Medical Correspondent. E-mail

Copyright © 2001-2004 United Press International


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