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FDA delays tougher rules on mad cow

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Half a year after the first case of mad cow disease was found in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration Friday banned the use of some high-risk meat in food and cosmetics. But it delayed any action on more sweeping rules that would tighten its regulations on cattle feed, often seen as a loophole in current safeguards against the fatal disease.

The new rule, which will take effect next week, bars the use of many so-called "specified risk materials" (SRMs) in human food, dietary supplements and cosmetics, as well as the use of meat from cattle that can't walk, often known as "downers," and mechanically separated beef.

"We cannot be content with the status quo," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said in a statement.

The announcement fell far short of the expectations of consumer groups, who had hoped that at the very least, the agency would enact a full set of rules proposed in January, a month after a Washington state dairy cow was discovered to have mad cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy. But the FDA did not take action on most of those proposed rules, instead calling for further comment, a decision called "inexplicable and irresponsible" by Carol Tucker Foreman of the Consumer Federation of America.

The one new rule released Friday in fact simply mirrors a regulation put in place by the Department of Agriculture in January.

"It seems like they're actually spinning their wheels backwards," said Jean Halloran, director of the Consumer Policy Institute, part of Consumers Union. "Meantime, in our view, they are putting public health at risk."

Two sets of recommendations
In addition to the ban on high-risk products in food and cosmetics, which was put into place Friday, the list of regulations proposed in January included: banning the use of mammalian blood and poultry droppings in cattle feed; requiring feed mills to maintain separate equipment for cattle feed; and prohibiting the use of meat scraps in feed. Some of these recommendations, including the ban on poultry "litter" in cattle feed, were initially considered by the FDA in 2002.

At the time, officials said the rules would help address possible shortfalls and would be shortly implemented. But as months have passed and the regulations still have not been put into place, the government has faced growing criticism.

And while these changes would have expanded current U.S. regulations, they still would have fallen short of those in Europe, which already ban all animal protein from cattle feed. In February, a panel of international experts convened by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman recommended several additional, more stringent measures: a ban of all mammal and poultry proteins from cattle feed; the removal of high-risk cattle protein from pet food; and an end to the use in cattle feed of meat and bone meal from any animal except fish.

FDA calls for additional comments
In April, FDA Acting Commissioner Lester Crawford said there would be no need for expanded rules beyond the January proposal unless additional cases of mad cow were found. But on Friday, the agency called for additional comment on both the January proposal and on the panel's suggestions.

The FDA also monitors feed mills to ensure they are following its current rules, in place since 1997, which prohibit feeding cattle any protein from cows or other ruminant animals. After some initial shortfalls, the agency now claims 99 percent compliance, though a record search earlier this year turned up about 100 recent violations.

Beef industry officials said they supported some of the new proposals, such as the proposed ban on poultry litter. But a restriction on SRMs in animal feed "would have serious consequences for the industry as well as pose a tremendous environmental challenge for the nation," said Rex Runyon of the American Feed Industry Association.

The meat industry has questioned how the unused meat and body parts would be disposed if they can no longer be used in feed.

Chandler Keys, vice president for public policy at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said beef producers took issue with many of the international panel's recommendations, arguing that some panel members based their stance on European regulations. "We thought that was kind of ludicrous," Keys said.

Keys added that beef producers share the government's view that the feed rules are a matter of animal health, not human health.

Delayed until 2006?
As is the nature of federal rulemaking, additional regulations to put any of these suggestions into place will be delayed for at least several months. Actual regulations might not be in place until 2005 or 2006. "It could potentially be that long," said Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine.

Sundlof said the additional recommendations by the international panel had made it necessary for the agency to take extra time to reconsider its original proposal. He said the multiple rules could have broader impacts that the FDA and the USDA needed to consider. For example, a ban on the use of poultry droppings and bedding might result in that material being dumped elsewhere.

"This has become a relatively complicated issue," Sundlof said.

The agency also unveiled a proposal that food makers who use beef be required to keep records for at least two years, showing they have not used any high-risk parts, which include the brain and nervous system tissue of older cattle, and the parts of the intestines of all cattle. Importers would also have to keep records of what cattle parts went into their products. The recordkeeping plan could also take more than a year to implement.

At the same time, the USDA announced it was seeking comments on how a national animal identification plan should be implemented, and whether it should be mandatory. Consumer advocates have long called for an animal ID system to help track diseased cattle; the cattle industry is worried about the costs.

Last month, the USDA initiated a national testing program to check for mad cow disease in about 200,000 or more animals it considers high-risk. It will cover just a fraction of the 37 million U.S. cows slaughtered annually, though officials have expressed confidence in their "targeted" approach.

Meantime, Canada announced its own plan for new feed rules Friday which would ban all SRMs from animal feed. A final proposal should be published this fall, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

The diseased cow found in Washington came from an Alberta farm, and in March, Canadian officials traced that case and a second mad cow case in Alberta to two Canadian feed mills that may have provided tainted feed.

Rules will likely fall short of European standards
The 1997 rules largely mirrored European rules devised after the disease sent shock waves through that continent's beef industry, and were intended to target what is considered the biggest cause of BSE: the transmission of a deformed form of proteins known as prions from cow to cow. Europe has since strengthened its rules.

While not contagious, abnormal prions can infect a cow when it eats the tainted protein of another animal. In Britain, which faced the largest fallout from the disease, over 180,000 cows were infected. Over 140 people worldwide have died from a similar affliction, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, thought to come from eating tainted beef.

Sundlof said the agency hoped to enact overlapping safeguards for animal feed more stringent than those currently in place. But he said the final rules would probably fall short of the sweeping European restrictions.

But it likely came as a relief to feed makers, who have been worried that the FDA would rapidly implement rules that could significantly impact their businesses.

And it delays any impact for the rest of the meat industry, which may have to absorb costs if some of the additional rules are put in place. For example, feed bans on high-risk parts and downed cows may lead rendering firms to stop doing business with some smaller meat processing plants, said Steve Krut, executive director of the American Association of Meat Processors.

Krut agreed that the impact of the FDA's proposals has yet to be determined: "We're kind of in the what-if, what-if, what-if stage."