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As Mad Cow Disease Hits U.S., Groups Urge USDA to Strengthen Food Inspection and Regulation System

Dec. 24, 2003   

As Mad Cow Disease Hits U.S., Groups Urge USDA to Strengthen Food Inspection and Regulation System

Statement by Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program; Peter Lurie, deputy director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group; Rodney Leonard, executive director, Community Nutrition Institute; Felicia Nestor, food safety director, Government Accountability Project; and Stan Painter, acting chairman, National Joint Council of Meat Inspection Local Unions, American Federation of Government Employees

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The discovery of the first case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease, in the United States points to some glaring holes in our food safety system that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has known about for years.  On April 12, 2001, (see below), 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 Tommy Thompson urging them to take steps 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 monitoring and containing BSE in this country still needs to be further tightened. Had these issues been addressed two years ago, the Washington case might not have occurred.

Among the actions that need to be taken immediately are:

Full outbreak investigation: USDA must determine the birth, herd and feed history of the infected cow.  Appropriate quarantines and recalls must be instituted immediately.

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 was now perfect, that provides little reassurance regarding what transpired during the intervening years, when the Washington cow became infected. 

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 National School Lunch Program but are still permitted in the general food supply.  A ban should be instituted to prevent the meat from downer animals to enter the food supply. 

End exceptions to the animal feed regulations: The FDA banned the use of some animal proteins in ruminant feed in 1997, but this ban is not sufficient (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.

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 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 the source (by country) for every ingredient.

Two of the groups that sent the letter to Secretaries Veneman and Thompson, 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 is a 400- to 2,000-fold difference in testing rates for mad cow disease between those with the highest and lowest rates.  Additionally, they urged that any testing protocol should include new tests developed in Europe to more rapidly detect the presence of BSE and other transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (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. 

The groups recommend that consumers should:

  • 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 the spinal column or containing bone that is part of the spinal cord, like T-bone 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, consumer should avoid pizza toppings, taco fillings, hot dogs, salami and bologna.

In light of the discovery of BSE in the United States the groups are calling on the USDA and FDA to take seriously the recommendations made more than two years ago to strengthen the regulations that could protect the American public and cattle industry from BSE. 

To read the Public Citizen and Government Accountability Project’s 2001 report on USDA’s Mad Cow Disease Surveillance Program:   A Comparison of State Cattle-Testing Rates, click here.

To read testimony by Peter Lurie, MD, MPH before the Consumer Affairs, Foreign Commerce and Tourism Subcommittee, April 4, 2001, click here.

To read the group letter to USDA and FDA from April 2001, click here.