- The Washington Times - Monday, February 5, 2001

U.S. health officials are clamping down as "mad cow" disease and the fear of it spreads throughout the world.
Scientists say the chances of the brain-destroying illness appearing in the United States are slim. But several incidents here in the past week have made calls for stricter regulation grow louder:
The Food and Drug Administration confirmed that 1,222 head of cattle in Texas were mistakenly fed cattle remains, a practice banned in the United States since 1997 because scientists think it could help spread the disease.
The German company that makes Mamba candy a fruit chew sold in 80 countries, including the United States said it would stop using beef-based gelatin in the treat because Germany is experiencing a mad-cow outbreak. Health officials in New York inspected the candy but decided against pulling it off shelves after deeming it safe.
The FDA said it is considering adopting tighter controls on cattle feed and adding restrictions on donating blood, another possible form of transmission among humans.
Brazil suspended shipments of some beef products to the United States in anticipation of a U.S. ban, hours after Canada said it was banning beef imports from Brazil because of concerns over the South American country's efforts to prevent mad-cow disease.
A coalition of cattle producers, feed companies and veterinarians met with regulators in Washington and urged them to continue a series of bans on feed and imports designed to keep mad-cow disease out of the country.
Federal researchers said they will continue to look at possible links between mad-cow disease and chronic-wasting disease (CWD), a similar neurological disorder found in deer and elk in the western United States. Unlike mad-cow disease, there is no evidence CWD can spread to humans.
The FDA said Americans should not worry about the Texas cow and German candy incidents. Beef-based gelatin is safe to eat, and there is virtually no chance the Texas cattle ate remains from infected cattle because the United States does not import beef from Europe.
"The Texas cattle thing is a nonevent. The candy in New York thing is a nonevent," said Paul Brown, a researcher at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke who has studied mad-cow disease extensively.
Consumer-rights activists are skeptical.
"We're dealing with a lot of hypotheticals here. We need much better assurances from the regulators," said Jane Halloran, a policy director for Consumers Union, the Yonkers, N.Y.-based publisher of Consumer Reports magazine.
Researchers do not know the origin of mad-cow disease. They think it spreads among cattle that are fed the ground remains of other, infected cattle. They suspect humans catch the disease by eating beef from infected cattle.

How it spreads

The first reports of mad-cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), surfaced in Britain in 1985.
Researchers think the disease may have originated when the remains of sheep suffering from another brain-destroying disease, scrapie, were fed to British cattle. Canada's ban on beef imports from Brazil came after 305 sheep in southern Brazil were found to have scrapie.
BSE causes prion proteins, a normal component of human and animal brains, to become deformed. When this happens, the proteins form a toxic plaque on brain tissue, researchers say. The brain cells die, and the brain becomes spongelike.
The deformed proteins have been found in brain tissue, eye tissue and the spinal cords of infected cattle.
The proteins have not been found in the beef or milk that comes from cattle. Scientists think BSE spreads among the animals when infected tissue is mixed with meat and ground into cattle feed.
Britain has reported more than 180,000 cases of BSE-infected cattle, but mad-cow disease also has surfaced in other European countries. Ireland and Portugal have documented more than 400 cases each. The German government plans to slaughter about 400,000 cattle that could be infected.
Most at risk for the spread of mad-cow disease are countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa because they import meat and bone meal from Europe, according to the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization.

The human variant

The human version of mad-cow disease, called new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), was first diagnosed in a British teen-ager in 1995. Since then, 92 persons almost all younger than 55 have died of or been diagnosed with vCJD. Eighty-eight were in Britain, three in France and one in Ireland.
Researchers think people catch vCJD from eating beef that was mixed with infected tissue during slaughter. This can include ground beef and sausage, but probably not steaks.
The prion proteins associated with BSE cannot be destroyed through cooking, research has shown.
In addition, the Bethesda, Md.-based National Institutes of Health last month said beef byproducts including some imported from nations reporting cases of BSE are used in products ranging from dietary supplements to cosmetics and automobile tires.
The FDA does not require companies to list on product labels the countries from which beef-based ingredients were imported. Researchers say it is not clear whether BSE can be contracted through nonfood products such as dietary supplements or cosmetics that have bovine ingredients.
The incubation period of the disease ranges from a few years to as long as a few decades, researchers think. Symptoms include poor concentration, lethargy and unsteadiness, followed by depression, uncontrollable body movements and severe dementia.
The disease is always fatal, and there is no treatment. Most victims die within two years after the first symptoms appear.
Though research continues on treatment, it is not a priority because so few humans are known to be affected. Scientists also are trying to determine better ways to diagnose vCJD.

Researchers vigilant

Neither BSE nor vCJD has been detected in the United States, which stopped importing beef from Britain in 1985 over a trade dispute.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture began surveying American cattle for BSE in May 1990 but has never found evidence of the disease here.
The USDA surveys for the disease by examining dead cattle that show any signs of neurological disorders. Since 1990, about 12,000 cattle have been tested, the USDA says.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, meanwhile, look for vCJD cases by tracking death certificates nationwide. If the victim of a neurological disorder matches the clinical profile of a vCJD victim, the person's brain tissue is sent to a special laboratory for examination.
Some researchers say this multilayered approach tracking signs of disease in both cattle and humans positions regulators to detect mad-cow disease if it surfaces.
"The chance of this becoming a serious public health risk in the United States is very low," said George Gray, a researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health who is preparing a report for the USDA on the risks of mad-cow disease here.
His report will not be published until spring, Mr. Gray said, but he is optimistic about the evidence so far.
"We won't have a U.K.-style epidemic here," he said. "It just won't happen."
Another researcher, Albino Belotto of the World Health Organization, agreed.
Mr. Belotto, considered one of the organization's top specialists in mad-cow disease, said he has reviewed procedures used in the United States and other countries to detect and prevent BSE and vCJD.
"[American health officials] are taking the right measures to prevent the occurrence of the disease in their country… . It could happen, but the risk in the United States is low," he said.

Some skeptical

Consumer-rights activists are not convinced.
Ms. Halloran of the Consumers Union said the 12,000 cattle inspected by federal regulators are an insignificant statistical sample, given the USDA's estimate that 13.6 million of the 100 million cattle in the United States are on feed.
"You'd have to have an enormous problem before you could detect it, and then it would likely be too late," she said.
She said the Consumers Union has urged the FDA to take extra steps to prevent the disease, including prohibiting the use of cow parts in other products, such as the beef-based gelatin found in the German candy.
Since 1997, the Consumers Union has encouraged the FDA to adopt a full ban on mammal-to-mammal feed. Regulations prohibit cattle from eating ground cattle parts, but the remains still can be fed to livestock, including pigs, chickens and turkeys.
"We think this is quite worrisome," Ms. Halloran said.
Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine, said no scientific evidence suggests that livestock can harbor a BSE-like illness. If such evidence emerged, the FDA would update its regulations, he said.
"It's an evolving situation, and we respond as things evolve. As we get more information, we respond," Mr. Sundlof said.

Protecting blood supply

Last month, federal researchers said they will investigate possible links between mad-cow disease and chronic wasting disease, the neurological disorder similar to mad-cow disease that has killed deer and elk in Colorado, Wyoming and other states in the West.
So far, they see no evidence that CWD can spread to humans and livestock that consume venison and venison byproducts.
Meanwhile, the FDA said it is considering recommendations by the American Red Cross last month for adopting stricter regulations on blood donations.
Currently, there is no proof that vCJD is spread to humans through blood. Nevertheless, the FDA bans anyone who traveled or lived in Britain for six months or more between 1980 and 1996 from giving blood.
Bernadine Healy, president and chief executive of the Red Cross, said the organization recommended extending the ban from 1996 to the present and including anyone who lived or traveled in Western Europe for six months or more.
The Red Cross estimates that a broader ban would shrink the pool of potential blood donors by 5 percent to 6 percent. If the FDA accepts the recommendations, Ms. Healy said, the Red Cross will boost its public-education campaign to attract more donors to cover the shortfall.
"Preserving the safety of the blood supply is our biggest concern," she said.

Economic impact mixed

Though officials say mad-cow disease does not pose a health risk to U.S. consumers, it could pose an economic one to U.S. businesses.
McDonald's Corp., the Oak Brook, Ill.-based hamburger giant, last month said profits fell 7 percent between October and January, in part because European customers, fearful of mad-cow disease, avoided hamburgers.
Sales in Europe dropped 8.6 percent during the final three months of 2000, McDonald's said. The fast-food chain is promoting nonbeef products, such as ham-and-cheese sandwiches, to boost sales.
Elsewhere, cattle prices took a big hit in Chicago markets last week.
Cattle futures on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange fell to a two-week low, with some contracts briefly dipping below the minimum daily limit of 1.5 cents per pound.
Trade experts think American farm exports could benefit from the mad-cow turmoil in Europe.
Beef consumption in Europe has plunged by about 27 percent since a number of countries reported cases of mad cow disease, according to the 15-nation European Union. Consumption in Italy has fallen 70 percent since its first native case of mad-cow disease was reported last month.
In the United States, demand for beef rose about 6 percent in the past two years, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
Some observers expect demand for U.S. soy meal to soar as overseas farmers shun the use of meat and bone meal to feed their herds.
Meanwhile, a coalition of cattle producers, feed companies and veterinarians last week met with regulators in Washington to urge them to step up efforts to keep BSE out of the country.
Murray Lumkin, a senior medical adviser to the FDA, said industry and government have to work together to protect consumers.
"If we are going to have any chance of keeping BSE out of the country, we as regulators, the rendered feed lot operators and so on are going to have to redouble efforts," Mr. Lumkin said.
This article is based in part on wire-service reports.

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