By Jon Bonné
msnbc.com
updated 4/2/2004 2:16:56 PM ET 2004-04-02T19:16:56

The Bush administration won't make additional changes to rules on cattle feed unless additional cases of mad cow disease are found in the United States, a senior official said Friday.

Food and Drug Administration Acting Commissioner Lester Crawford said his agency might consider new rules if other cases emerge, including a potential ban on some cattle parts known as specified risk material (SRMs) -- brains and spinal cords, for instance -- in all animal feed.

“We’re thinking about that,” Crawford told Reuters in an interview. However, he added, “If there are no other cases, there’s not really a need to do anything."

If additional cases are found through expanded testing by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, additional feed rules could include a ban on SRMs from feed intended for poultry and swine. The FDA sets guidelines for what can be included in feed for various animals. But its regulatory powers are mostly limited to reviews of documents at feed plants, and it has little ability to monitor how farmers use the feed.

Mad cow disease is believed to be spread by cattle eating brains and other central nervous tissue that was banned from ruminant feed in 1997. However, some recently found cases are thought to have occurred spontaneously.

Crawford also said the FDA will publish a regulation announced Jan. 27 that it would ban cattle blood and poultry litter from feed for ruminant animals, including cattle and sheep. Critics have been frustrated that the previously announced rules have yet to be enacted.

"We can't imagine why it's taking two months to publish the proposal," said Jean Halloran, director of Consumers Union's Consumer Policy Institute. "We're very concerned that there's some effort to rethink or hold this back."

Broader ban?
An international panel convened by Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman recommended in February that SRMs from any animal be banned from all types of animal feed, including pet food. It recommended, at least temporarily, that all animal protein, except fish, be banned from cattle feed. And it suggested that the FDA's enforcement be expanded to include testing and sampling of animal feed, which has become a standard practice in many other countries.

The European Union, where mad cow disease first appeared in Britain in the late 1980s, has since 2000 banned all animal protein except milk and eggs from use in feed for any animal that enters the human food chain.

By contrast, U.S. officials have stood by the 1997 feed rules implemented in this country and in Canada, which prohibited feeding ruminant proteins to other ruminants, but did not go as far as European regulations. According to FDA records, dozens of feed mills and distributors have been cited for violating the 1997 rules, as recently as last month.

After the first U.S. case of the disease was found in a Mabton, Wash., dairy cow last December, USDA officials decided to ban SRMs from older cows as human food; brains from older cattle, for example, would soon be off the menu.

The USDA followed that some two months later with a plan to expand testing of the U.S. cattle herd for the fatal brain disease. It expects to test somewhere around 200,000 cows in the next 18 months, up from some 20,000 last year. Most of those will be sick cattle, including so-called "downer" cows that cannot walk. Downers were also banned from use in the human food chain, though officials acknowledge it can be difficult to determine whether a cow is able to walk.

The agency quickly focused on downers after it determined that the infected cow, which was imported from Canada, had been unable to walk. But several witnesses have claimed it could walk, which prompted the USDA to investigate its initial claims.

Crawford, who spoke with Reuters at a forum for cattle ranchers on mad cow disease, did not provide additional details on other possible moves by the FDA if additional cases are found.

Halloran, whose organization has pushed for stronger feed and testing rules, praised the USDA for its recent approval of two rapid tests that detect the disease in just a few hours. But she questioned the agency's continued refusal to allow private companies to test their own cattle in addition to the official efforts, which the government has stressed is for "surveillance," not food safety.

"The whole idea that they're not allowing private enterprises to use them is just incomprehensible," Halloran said. "It's astonishing."

Fight over Japan
Creekstone Farms, a smaller beef packer in Arkansas City, Kan., recently petitioned the USDA to test all its animals, many of which it ships to Japan. The agency says it is still reviewing the request, but has previously rejected private requests to test for animal diseases.

The Japanese role in U.S. policies over mad cow has been a point of contention in recent days. Japan, the largest importer of U.S. beef with $1.4 billion in imports last year, banned American beef after the first case was found last December.

On Thursday, the USDA on Thursday released a proposal by Veneman to her Japanese counterpart that recommended another international panel help to devise common cattle health standards for both countries. Japanese officials rejected that proposal.

Along with the USDA, cattle producers and larger meat packers have accused the Japanese, who test every cow that is eaten, of being unreasonable in their demands that the U.S. cattle industry do the same before it reopens its borders. The Bush administration insists there is no scientific reason to do universal testing; many scientists agree, though at least one leading researcher has endorsed 100-percent testing.

The U.S. beef industry was briefly hobbled by bans not only from Japan but over 50 other nations, though at least two -- Mexico and Poland -- have eased their restrictions. However, ranchers have cut back production and beef prices are generally on the rebound.

While U.S. officials have threatened to take Japan to the World Trade Organization if the ban persists, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick told Reuters he was hopeful Japan would ease its stance.

“Japan benefits a lot from our market. It’s important they play by the rules, too,” Zoellick said. He would not answer whether Japan’s ban on U.S. beef was in violation of WTO rules.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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