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From: TSS ()
Subject: Mad cow cases met with shrug instead of safeguards USA TODAY
Date: July 31, 2005 at 7:54 pm PST

Posted 7/31/2005 8:49 PM

Mad cow cases met with shrug instead of safeguards
When bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease, first surfaced in the United States in 2003, cattle ranchers and government officialsshrugged it off as a cow infected in Canada before being imported here.
When a native-born cow tested positive this June, they explained it away once again, saying the animal was infected before cattle feed restrictions were put in place in 1997.

And when a third possible domestic case surfaced last week, they hastened to note that the 12-year-old cow hadn't entered the food chain.

The story is always the same. Consumers are urged not to worry about the chance of a major outbreak of the disease, like the one that occurred in Europe a decade ago. They are assured they will be protected by the practices of the cattle industry and the policies of responsible government agencies.

In fact, those practices and policies are considered so ineffective that 64 nations have total or partial bans on U.S. beef products. And the two agencies charged with ensuring a safe beef supply, the Agriculture Department (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), have become as much a part of the industry's public relations team as they are public health watchdogs. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns' response to each episode seems to be to tell everyone he's going to have beef for dinner.

This inadequate oversight, resulting from short-sighted cattle industry pressure, forces American consumers to buy the beef that others will not. It's also counterproductive for the industry itself, which would like diners worldwide to think of its products as top of the line.

As the Agriculture Department investigates the latest possible case of the disease - results are expected this week — it has reaffirmed how lackadaisical and insufficient its testing practices are. The FDA, meanwhile, oversees cattle feed policies so riddled with loopholes they would be laughable if they weren't so nauseating.

Mad cow disease is spread when cows, which are herbivores by nature, are fed parts of cattle and other ruminant (cud-chewing) animals. It can be prevented from spreading to humans by careful monitoring of what cattle eat and by effective, timely testing.

At the moment, American consumers have neither protection:

•Feed loopholes. In 1997, the FDA imposed a so-called ban on the feeding of ruminant protein to cows. But that policy has two enormous exemptions. Weaning calves may drink cattle blood as a milk substitute. And feed may include the waste from chicken coop floors as a protein supplement. This waste poses a risk not because of its many unsavory elements, including feces and feathers, but because FDA officials estimate that up to 30% of it can be uneaten chicken feed — which routinely contains beef.

•"Keystone Kops" testing. The brain tissue of the cow that is currently being tested was first collected in April. The investigation was delayed because the veterinarian forgot to send the sample to the laboratory. The sample that tested positive in June had originally been cleared by USDA last year. Subsequent tests were ordered by a suspicious internal investigator, showing how inadequate the department's testing is.

The industry is right to argue that the chances of anyone contracting the human form of the disease are quite low. But the issue isn't the overall risk, but whether the government and industry are taking reasonable steps to ensure it is as low as it can be.

By that standard, consumers are right to have a beef. The feed loopholes need to be closed. Quicker, more accurate testing processes need to be fast-tracked.

Only then will Americans be able to enjoy their summer barbecues without having to worry that eating a hamburger might lead to a fatal brain-wasting disease.


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