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Mad Cow Case Raises Testing Issue

Critics Say U.S. is Badly in Need of Better Defense Against Disease


The confirmed case of mad cow disease in Canada is certain to bring new attention to the quality of U.S. surveillance that protects the nation's $80 billion beef industry, a system that critics say leaves much to be desired.

''This demonstrates that no cattle-producing country can think it's safe. It really is a clarion call to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to step up surveillance in this country,'' said Steve Bjerklie of Meat Processing magazine.

Last year, the USDA tested 19,990 cattle for the disease -- scientifically known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE -- out of a U.S. herd of 100 million. But in Europe, said Michael Hansen of the watchdog group Consumers Union, every animal older than 18 months is tested. ''They use quick overnight tests at slaughterhouses. The carcasses get held overnight to cool down anyway, so if they get a positive reading in the morning, they can do a more exact testing.''

Beef industry representatives say the USA doesn't need the extensive level of testing used in Europe. ''In England, it was epidemic. It was everywhere, all through their herds. They let it get away from them. That's why they had more intensive testing,'' said Chandler Keys, the beef association's vice president of government affairs.

International standards for a BSE-free countries such as the USA require the testing of 433 cattle a year.

Keys said it's important to remember that one case in Canada is no epidemic. ''Let's take a deep breath and look at everything in a rational way,'' he said.

The $80 billion question here -- the approximate annual value of the U.S. beef industry -- is how the Canadian cow became infected in the first place.

Elk in Western Canada have been found infected with chronic wasting disease, an illness related to BSE, said Alberta veterinarian Kee Jim. ''It has been suggested there could be cross-species transmission,'' he said.

But scientists don't believe BSE can be transmitted from one live animal to another. In Europe, the route of infection was the feeding of cow meat and bone meal to cattle. Canada and the USA both outlawed the feeding of such meal to cattle, sheep and goats in 1997. The Canadian cow was 8 years old, born in 1995, so it is possible it got infected feed during its first two years.

Another possibility is that the cow was fed infected feed after the ban went into place. In the USA, at least, feed has been mislabeled. A report in 2000 by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, found that 28% of companies weren't labeling feed containing cow meat or bone meal with the required precautionary statements that the material shouldn't be fed to cattle; 20% of the companies that handled both cattle and other kinds of meat and bone meal didn't have required systems in place to prevent cross-contamination.

The rules need to be strengthened if the U.S. meat supply is to be protected from this disease, Hansen said.

How the cow became infected is being investigated through a trace-back program in which all Canadian cattle are tracked throughout their lives.

''If similar problems arose in the U.S., you presently do not have that system,'' said Jim the Alberta veterinarian.

U.S. meat producers and agriculture officials have stressed repeatedly that there has never been a case of BSE detected in this country and such extensive tracking isn't necessary. But ''we (Canadians) would have said that yesterday,'' Jim said.

source: http://www.usatoday.com/usatonline/20030521/5175826s.htm 24dec03

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