Friday, May 30, 2003

world's safest food supply [WSJ via ABE #252]
How does mad cow spread? Mad cow likely is spread by an infectious agent called a prion, largely found in the brain and spinal cord of a diseased animal. The disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), bores holes into the animal's brain and is always fatal. In humans, the disease, known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease or vCJD, is equally fatal. It's believed the disease spread because cattle were fed the recycled remains of infected sheep and cattle.

But didn't the U.S. ban those feeding practices? Yes, but loopholes remain. The ban means cattle, sheep, goats and deer can't be given feed that contains protein made from similar animals.

But these animals still can be turned into food for chickens, pigs and pets. Chicken and pigs can still be fed back to cattle. And bovine blood is still fed to calves. All this means it's still theoretically possible for a U.S. cow to consume infected material. In other countries, the practice of recycling animals for feed is banned altogether.

A scathing report from the General Accounting Office last year found the Food and Drug Administration had done a lousy job enforcing the limited ban. The office found cases where firms repeatedly failed to properly label feed that contained the banned protein. They sometimes continued to include the banned proteins in cattle feeds.

Federal officials say enforcement agencies have since stepped up their monitoring of mad-cow safety rules. The USDA has criticized the GAO report, saying it failed to take into account a Harvard study the USDA funded, which found the risk of BSE occurring in the U.S. is extremely low. "The public health threat in the United States from BSE is vanishingly small," FDA Deputy Commissioner Lester Crawford says.

Aren't the riskiest parts of the cow kept out of the food supply? Not always. Cow brains, spinal cords and central-nervous-system tissue pose the highest risk. Cow brains, banned in Europe, still are sold in the U.S. In addition, cuts of meat with bone, such as a T-bone steak, are stripped directly from the animal's vertebrae and may contain portions of the spinal cord.

Finally, some plants use high-pressure water and air or scraping methods to remove meat bits off a cow carcass. The recovered bits are added to hotdogs and low-quality hamburger. A USDA survey last year found more than one-third of products that contained this type of meat also contained some central-nervous-system tissue. In March, the USDA announced a stepped-up monitoring program aimed at keeping spinal-cord tissue out of meats. But critics want this meat-recovery method banned entirely, as it has been in Britain.

Aren't animals in this country tested for mad cow? The U.S. tests far fewer animals than do many countries. Last year, 20,000 U.S. cattle were tested, three times more than the previous year. But in Europe, they test more than 20,000 animals a day. Japan tests every bovine that enters the food supply. U.S. officials note testing here far exceeds standards required for a country where mad cow has never been found. Critics contend it isn't enough. "You can't find what you're not looking hard enough for," says Michael Greger, BSE coordinator for the Organic Consumers Association.

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