- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 4, 2004

The United States probably imported mad cow-infected animals in past decades and now needs stronger regulations to protect people and animals from undiscovered, native-born cases, a panel commissioned by the government said yesterday.

Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman appointed the panel of international scientists after the disclosure of a single case of mad cow disease in Washington state on Dec. 23.

They evaluated the U.S. response to the mad cow discovery and made a series of recommendations to prevent further spread, including tighter restrictions on processing animals into feed, pet food and human food, greatly increased testing and surveillance, and a national animal-identification program.

The additional restrictions are necessary in part because mad cow-infected animals likely were imported into the country from Canada and Europe.

“These animals have not been detected and therefore infective material has likely been rendered, fed to cattle, and amplified within the cattle population, so that cattle in the U.S.A. have also been indigenously infected,” the report said.

The single diagnosed case originated in Canada. Canada reported its first apparent native-borne case of the disease in May.

The report did not estimate the number of imports or potential cases, but Ulrich Kihm, panel chairman, told Agriculture Department officials that the United States “could have a case a month” of the disease.

The beef industry quickly challenged the report, written by scientists from the United States, Switzerland, Britain and New Zealand.

“That was a pretty irresponsible remark by the scientist,” Chandler Keys, vice president for government affairs at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said of Mr. Kihm’s comment.

Gary Weber, executive director for regulatory affairs at the association, said the scientists wrongly based many of their conclusions on Europe’s more severe experience with the disease and did not acknowledge that the United States already has sufficient measures in place to safeguard people and animals.

“We take issue with this report because it implies the risk of [mad cow disease] has not been mitigated in this country. That is simply not the case,” he said.

U.S. government officials appeared to side with the industry. Stephen Sundlof, director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, said the panel’s report “paints a very different picture” than a risk analysis prepared in 2001 by Harvard University researchers, Reuters reported. That report concluded existing U.S. safeguards were adequate to deal with the disease, should it arise.

Mr. Sundlof said the FDA had made no decisions on whether to follow the new recommendations, Reuters reported.

The disease — officially known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE — fatally attacks the central nervous system of cattle. It has been linked to a chronic brain-wasting malady in humans and has devastated international cattle trade in some affected nations.

Scientists think it is spread when nervous tissue from an infected animal is turned into feed and given to a healthy animal.

The government in 1997 banned the practice of feeding cattle to cattle but not of feeding cattle to other animals, and other animals to cattle. On Jan. 26, the Food and Drug Administration closed some loopholes, such as feeding cattle blood to calves and feeding chicken waste to cattle, but the panel yesterday said further restrictions are necessary.

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