WASHINGTON — Seeking to close a gap in the nation’s defense against mad cow disease, the Bush administration on Tuesday proposed to eliminate cow brains and spinal cords from feed for all animals, including chickens, pigs and pets.
The government already bans virtually all cattle remains from cattle feed. The new proposal from the Food and Drug Administration “will make an already small risk even smaller,” acting FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach said.
The new proposal would reduce the risk of infection by 90 percent, said Stephen F. Sundlof, director of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine. After a public comment period, the rules should take effect sometime next year, he said.
However, critics said the new proposal falls far short of what FDA had promised 19 months ago, after the nation’s first case of mad cow disease was confirmed. At that time, FDA said it would add three other items to the list of materials banned from cattle feed: blood, restaurant plate waste and poultry litter. All are potential pathways for mad cow disease.
The proposal announced Tuesday is designed to eliminate the need for banning chicken litter from cattle feed because chickens would no longer be fed cow brains and spinal cords, among the cattle parts most likely to contain mad cow disease.
Contrary to FDA’s previous plan, the new proposal does not ban cattle blood, often fed to calves as a milk replacer, or restaurant leftovers from cattle feed. It also doesn’t ban chicken litter, which includes spilled feed as well as chicken manure, which scientists believe could contain mad-cow disease if the chickens had ingested tainted protein.
The feed rules are important because the only way cattle are known to get mad cow disease is from eating feed containing contaminated cattle remains.
Ground-up cattle remains — leftovers from slaughtering operations — were used as protein in cattle feed until 1997, when Britain’s outbreak prompted the U.S. to ban the use of those remains in cattle feed. The ban prohibited all cattle protein from being used in cattle feed, with the exceptions of poultry litter, plate waste and blood, which can contain cattle protein.
FDA’s new proposal would ban from livestock feed the brain and spinal cord — tissues that can carry mad cow disease— from cows older than 30 months. The age cutoff is specified because infection levels are believed to rise as cattle grow older.
The proposal does not include other tissues, such as eyes or part of the small intestine, considered “specified risk materials” by the Agriculture Department, which requires their removal from meat that people eat. FDA regulates animal feed.
More loopholes exist
Consumer groups and scientists said the government did not close all the loopholes because its new proposal bans just the brain and spinal cord of cattle 30 months and older and not all at-risk tissues, regardless of age, that could carry the disease.
Linda Detwiler, a former Agriculture Department veterinarian who led the department’s work on mad cow disease for several years, said removing 90 percent of the risk isn’t good enough.
“I’m disappointed that our government wouldn’t want to remove 100 percent, given that there’s emerging research that there may be more tissues that have infectivity,” she said.
Detwiler said the plan would still allow chicken, pig and pet feed to contain potentially infectious tissues from the highest-risk cattle, “downers” that can’t walk and dead cows.
“There is no question that we should not be feeding the remains of any mammals to food animals, and by not closing this dangerous loophole, we are exposing the American public to unnecessary risk,” said Michael Hansen, a biologist for Consumers Union.
Chris Waldrop, a spokesman for Consumer Federation of America, accused the agency of caving to pressure from the meat industry.
The FDA’s Sundlof countered that Tuesday’s proposal “is much more protective” than the earlier proposal.
“By removing the brain and spinal cord, you’ve taken out 90 percent of the risk,” he said, citing a risk assessment prepared by Harvard University researchers.
The meat industry applauded the new rules, saying a broader ban on at-risk tissues from cows of every age would have forced meatpackers to dispose of 1.4 billion pounds of materials annually.
The new plan “is the appropriate, science-based policy,” said Jim Hodges, president of the meatpacking industry’s American Meat Institute Foundation.
It will cost the industry about $14 million annually, according to FDA.
The new proposal would ban from livestock feed:
- Brains and spinal cords of cattle 30 months and older.
- Brains and spinal cords of all cattle not approved for human consumption.
- Entire carcasses of cattle not approved for human consumption, if brains and spinal cords have not been removed.
- Tallow derived from at-risk tissues, if it contains more than .15 percent impurities.
- Mechanically separated beef from at-risk materials identified in the new proposal.
Mad cow disease is the common name for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE. A rare but fatal form of the disease in humans, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, is linked to eating meat products contaminated with BSE and was blamed for about 150 deaths, most of them in Britain, beginning in 1995.
The first U.S. case of the disease, confirmed in December 2003, was in a Canadian-born cow in Washington state. The second case, a Texas-born cow, tested positive in June.
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