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Statement Regarding First U.S. Case of Mad Cow Disease

Joint Statement

Wenonah Hauter, Director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program
Peter Lurie, M.D., M.P.H., Deputy Director, Public Citizen’s Health Research Group
Rodney Leonard, Executive Director, Community Nutrition Institute
Felicia Nestor, Food Safety Director, Government Accountability Project
Stan Painter, Acting Chairman, National Joint Council of Meat Inspection Local Unions, American Federation of Government Employees

The discovery of the first case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) in the United States points to some glaring holes in our food safety system that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has known about for years. On April 12, 2001, a coalition of animal welfare, consumer, farming, environmental, and public health groups sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and to Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Tommy Thompson urging them to take a number of concrete measures to prevent the introduction of BSE-contaminated meat into our domestic food supply.  While some improvements have occurred since that letter was sent, the system of montoring and containing BSE in this country still needs further tightening.

Among the actions that need to be taken immediately are:

  • Conduct a full outbreak investigation: USDA must determine the birth, movement and feed history of the infected cow.  Appropriate quarantines and recalls must be instituted immediately.
  • Exclude “downer” cows from the food supply: Downer cows, like the infected cow in Washington state, are cows that are unable to walk, making them a more likely suspect for having neurological diseases like BSE.  They have been banned for use in meat destined for the school lunch program, but are still permitted in the general food supply.  A ban should be instituted to prevent the meat from downer animals from entering the food supply. 
  • Enforce the feed ban: In January 2002, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) concluded that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “has not acted promptly to compel firms to keep prohibited proteins out of cattle feed and to label animal feed that cannot be fed to cattle.”  According to the GAO, noncompliant firms had not been re-inspected in two years, firms with multiple infractions evaded any penalty and the FDA’s inspection data were “severely flawed.”  Consequently, the GAO stated, “FDA does not know the full extent of industry compliance.”  As recently as July of this year, FDA was still issuing consent decrees against feed mills for non-compliance with the feed ban.  Even if compliance with the feed ban is now perfect, that provides little reassurance regarding compliance between 1997, when the feed ban was passed, and the present. 
  • End exceptions to the animal feed regulations: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the use of some animal proteins in ruminant feed in 1997, but this ban is not complete (e.g., cow parts can still be fed to pigs and chickens). The regulations also allow cattle to eat certain cattle tissue such as blood, gelatin and plate waste (inspected meat product that has been cooked and offered for human consumption and then processed for animal feed).  These exceptions should be ended.
  • End dangerous meat production processes: The USDA continues to permit human consumption of potentially dangerous materials through meat processing techniques such as mechanical deboning and advanced meat recovery, which can result in the inclusion of brain or spinal cord in food for human consumption. Reasonable precaution suggests that the high-risk materials produced by these processes should be removed from the human food supply.  In addition, brain and spinal cord should be removed from slaughtered cows prior to further processing.
  • Expand testing for Mad Cow Disease: Currently, the USDA tests only cows with neurological disease and a fraction of downer cows.  With the discovery of the current case, testing should be expanded to include all downer cows.  Particularly if additional cases are found, expansion of testing to apparently normal animals should also be considered.
  • High-risk material in dietary supplements: The use of high-risk bovine tissues such as brain, spinal cord, and dorsal root ganglia should be prohibited from use as ingredients in dietary supplements.  We also recommend a mandatory adverse event reporting requirement for all dietary supplement manufacturers, mandatory risk warnings for consumers, requirements for company and product registration, and identification of the raw ingredients and, for every ingredient derived from an animal, the source by country.

Two of the groups that sent the letter, GAP and Public Citizen, followed up later that year with an analysis of the USDA’s testing program for BSE.  They found that the program was plagued with dramatic inconsistencies between states.  The report showed that for the largest cattle-producing states, there was a 400- to 2,000-fold difference in testing rates for mad cow disease between those with the highest and lowest rates.  Washington State was consistently one of the states with the lowest testing rates.  Additionally, any testing protocol should include new tests developed in Europe to more rapidly detect the presence of BSE and other TSEs, if they meet FDA standards.

A newer concern is the challenge faced by government meat inspectors as they face shortages and shifted responsibilities in meat plants.   Because of changes in their assignments, most inspectors in beef slaughter plants spend less of their time in the part of the plant where live animals are held – and where they would see the “downer” cows that should be tested for BSE. 

What consumers should do:

  • Avoid brains, beef cheeks and neck bones, because they can contain nervous tissue
  • Avoid any meat that comes from the head and any meat that is taken from close to spinal column (e.g., T-bone steak) for the same reason.
  • Avoid ground beef unless they grind it themselves from a whole piece of muscle meat.   Ground beef often contains materials recovered through advanced meat recovery and other processes that can result in contamination with nervous tissue. For the same reason, consumers should avoid pizza toppings, taco fillings, hot dogs, salami and bologna.


Group Letter to USDA and FDA, April 2001

Testimony by Peter Lurie, MD, MPH before the Consumer Affairs, Foreign Commerce and Tourism Subcommittee, April 4, 2001. https://www.citizen.org/hrg1563

USDA’s Mad Cow Disease Surveillance Program: A Comparison of State Cattle-Testing Rates, GAP and PC, July 2001 https://www.citizen.org/hrg1581