Government Must Do More to Prevent Mad Cow Disease

June 24, 2005

Government Must Do More to Prevent Mad Cow Disease

Statement by Wenonah Hauter, Director, Public Citizen’s Food Program

Today’s announcement that further testing of a cow has confirmed the diagnosis of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease, underscores the need for federal regulations on BSE to be tightened immediately.  

Public Citizen applauds the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) inspector general for forcing the agency to conduct more types of testing after initial tests had an inconclusive result in the cow that ultimately tested positive. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the division responsible for the BSE testing program, must design a consistent policy that exhausts every testing option available when there is an inconclusive rapid test result, as was the case with this animal. 

Moreover, we find it reprehensible that USDA Secretary Mike Johanns is questioning the inspector general’s decision to request further testing. The inspector general’s position is independent, and Johanns should not attempt to influence her decisions in any way.

We urge the USDA to swiftly identify the origin of the BSE-positive animal and for the USDA and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to strengthen BSE-prevention regulations. Specifically:

  • The FDA must eliminate loopholes and strengthen enforcement of the current “feed ban,” which still allows the use of cattle blood, waste from the floors of poultry houses, and processed restaurant and food plate waste to be fed to cattle. The use of rendered cattle remains is allowed in feed for hogs and poultry, and in turn, hog and poultry remains can be put back into cattle feed. All of these loopholes provide pathways for cattle to eat potentially infective tissue from other cattle and create the potential for the disease to spread. The FDA announced in January 2004 that it would close these loopholes, but has yet to do so, leaving the public unprotected.
  • The USDA should immediately address its inadequate policy for ensuring that the age of cattle is correctly determined at slaughter. The age of cattle is a critical issue in determining which tissues must be removed to comply with BSE regulations, and the agency currently allows meat companies to determine cattle age without government oversight. The agency should immediately end the retaliatory investigation they have been conducting on the chairman of the meat inspectors’ union, who reported this important policy weakness.
  • The USDA should dramatically increase its BSE surveillance program. Additionally, all “suspect” cattle (those with neurological or other signs of the disease) or downer cattle (those unable to walk) of any age should be tested.  And the USDA should stop prohibiting companies from conducting their own BSE testing. When the USDA licenses companies to conduct BSE testing, the agency should require that any positive results must be reported to the government and that USDA inspectors and veterinarians have access to company testing records.
  • The USDA must ban the human consumption of materials produced by Advanced Meat Recovery (AMR). After the December 2003 discovery of a BSE-infected cow, the USDA restricted the use of AMR to animals less than 30 months of age. Consumers should not be exposed to spinal and nervous system materials – which are the most infectious parts of a BSE-positive animal – in their food no matter what the age of the animal. The agency should also ban the human consumption of all Specified Risk Materials, such as brains and spinal cord, from cattle of all ages. The agency’s rules still allow spinal cord or brain from cattle less than 30 months to be sold as food for humans. The agency should enact a total ban on such products, or at minimum require that they be clearly labeled and that consumers be warned of the risk posed by these products.
  • The USDA must maintain the ban on downer cows for human consumption put in place after the discovery of the first case of BSE in 2003. The Secretary of Agriculture has stated that he is considering relaxing this ban.   Instead, the agency should make the downer ban permanent, by taking steps to issue a final rule on this topic.

Contrary to the USDA’s attempts to portray this finding as some kind of indication that the system worked, the discovery of the second BSE case in the United States should serve as a wake-up call. The USDA and FDA have known about the weaknesses in their regulations for years, and have failed to take the necessary steps to adequately protect consumers from this disease.  It is past time for them to act.

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