The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has not implemented any new safeguards since the discovery of the first U.S. mad cow case, faces growing pressure to bolster its ban on the use of cattle remains in certain animal feed.
The discovery of mad cow disease in a Holstein dairy cow in Washington state has focused new attention on how cattle are raised and slaughtered.
While the U.S. Agriculture Department rushed to impose a series of new food safety rules, FDA officials have said it would take time before deciding whether extra precautions were necessary to protect U.S. cattle herds from the brain-wasting disease.
Since August 1997, the FDA has banned the use of cattle remains as an ingredient in feed for other cows, goats and sheep -- a practice blamed for spreading mad cow disease throughout Britain in the 1980s and 1990s.
“The FDA’s animal feed regulations provide the first and best line of defense against BSE,” said Rep. Lee Terry, a Nebraska Republican.
Officials believe mad cow disease was spread to the Washington cow after it ate the brains, spinal cord and other remains of an infected cow.
Experts say the best way to prevent mad cow disease is to ban this “high risk” material from human food and animal feed.
“Taking the brain and spinal cord out is the single most important, most cost effective and most easy to implement in protecting human health,” said Will Hueston, veterinarian at the University of Minnesota and member of an international panel appointed to review the U.S. mad cow case.
Hueston said a cow with mad cow disease holds 80 percent of infectivity in its brain and spinal cord.
The USDA last week banned brains and spinal cord from older cattle from the food supply. But the FDA continues to allow these “high risk” materials to be rendered into feed for pigs and chickens.
Some lawmakers and consumer groups are calling for even tougher steps, such as banning the feeding of animal remains to all food animals.
Industry officials say these actions are unnecessary as the diseased Washington cow probably became infected in Canada.
Results from DNA tests of the Holstein dairy cow expected back this week will determine whether the animal was originally from Canada. U.S. officials believe the 6 1/2-year-old cow was imported into the United States from Alberta, Canada, in 2001.
Top USDA officials and industry groups have said that foreign countries should lift their U.S. beef bans if it is confirmed that Canada was home to the infected cow.
More than two dozen countries have banned U.S. beef exports, worth an annual $3.2 billion.
Japan, Mexico and South Korea are the top buyers of U.S. beef, and the USDA is focusing its efforts on restoring trade with them as quickly as possible.
A trade delegation, which includes USDA undersecretaries J.B. Penn and Bill Hawks, travels to Mexico on Monday to update agriculture officials on the mad cow case. A USDA team last week visited Japan and South Korea.