- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2001

The federal government needs to spend more money to prevent an outbreak of mad cow disease, consumer-rights activists and beef-industry executives told a Senate panel yesterday.
The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation consumer affairs, foreign commerce and tourism subcommittee held the hearing on the brain-destroying disease to learn whether our country's efforts are adequate from preventing an outbreak like the one that has ravaged Europe.
The United States has never had a confirmed case of the disease, but witnesses told the panel the government can reduce the risk of an outbreak by adding more inspectors at all borders where cattle and products containing cattle parts enter the United States.
More funding for research also would give the United States an extra layer of protection, the witnesses said.
"Never in my career have I seen so much public anguish over an animal disease as I've seen in the last six months over [mad cow disease]," James H. Hodges, president of the American Meat Institute Foundation, told the committee.
Mr. Hodges and representatives from other beef-industry trade groups urged the lawmakers to spend more on research for animal-related diseases.
Chuck Schroeder, chief executive of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said the government should double funding over the next five years for agricultural research to $2.4 billion annually.
President Bush should boost the budget for the U.S. Department of Agriculture division that patrols borders for animal-related diseases, said Peter Lurie, deputy director of health research for Public Citizen, a consumer rights group.
The annual budget for the department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is about $500 million. The budget plan Mr. Bush submitted to Congress this year leaves the funding unchanged.
"You really can't police the borders if the demand is increasing but the budget remains the same," Mr. Lurie said.
The Agriculture Department said last week it has 2,000 inspectors at the nation's busiest ports and borders. These agents monitor animal-related diseases, including the foot-and-mouth virus, which is harmless to humans but is devastating for cloven-hoofed animals such as sheep and pigs.
Foot-and-mouth disease, or hoof-and-mouth, has spread rapidly through Europe. Britain has slaughtered more than 500,000 animals since late February to keep the disease from spreading.
Mad cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, spreads among livestock that are fed the ground remains of other infected cattle, according to researchers.
People catch the human form of the disease, new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, by eating beef from infected cattle, researchers believe. The virus turns the brain spongelike, eventually robbing its victims of the ability to speak and think clearly.
The human version of the brain-destroying illness has killed almost 100 people in Britain since 1995, when it almost wiped out the British beef industry.
Last month, federal health officials seized two flocks of sheep in Vermont that showed signs of a version of the disease.
Will Hueston, a University of Maryland scientist who spoke before the Senate panel, said the disease presents a dilemma for lawmakers who fund federal programs to fight diseases like mad cow.
"If we are successful [in preventing an outbreak], we will be criticized for wasting resources for a problem that has not occurred. If we are not successful, we will be criticized for not doing enough to prevent the disease," said Mr. Hueston, who was co-chairman of a study of U.S. mad cow risks by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, a group of scientific organizations.
The government also has hired Harvard University to study mad cow disease risks. That report is due this spring.
The hearing was held the same day Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, introduced legislation to create a task force to study the use of cattle parts in products like cosmetics, dietary supplements and vaccines.
Mr. Durbin's bill also would require product labels to include detailed information if the product contains imported animal parts.
"Automobiles or clothes or computers purchased here in the United States are put together with components from all over the world. So are our food products," Mr. Durbin said in a statement.
Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Colorado Republican, introduced legislation last month to create a task force to coordinate federal efforts to prevent mad cow and other animal diseases, such as foot-and-mouth.
"By any public health measure, the U.S. program to control mad cow disease appears to be a success so far… . However, the seriousness of the public health concern means that regulators cannot be complacent," Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a D.C.-based consumer-advocacy group, told the Senate panel.

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