- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 30, 2003

The Bush administration yesterday announced extensive measures to keep beef infected with mad cow disease out of the food chain.

Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman moved to assure consumers and trade partners that U.S. meat is safe, implementing one measure that earlier this year had been rejected by Congress and others to lessen any risk of people eating tainted meat.

Mrs. Veneman last week announced the United States’ first case of mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE. The fatal affliction rarely moves from cows to humans who eat diseased tissue.

But the announcement caused trade partners to close their markets to U.S. meat exports, shutting off a source of more than $3 billion for the industry, and dropped cattle futures the daily maximum for the fourth straight session yesterday.

“While we are confident that the United States has safeguards and fire walls needed to protect public health, these additional actions will further strengthen our protection systems,” Mrs. Veneman said.

All “downer” cattle, animals that are sick or injured and cannot walk, are now banned from the human food chain. The lone identified mad cow case was in a downer animal that was slaughtered, packed and shipped to consumers.

Congress this year considered legislation that would have implemented such a ban, but it died in conference under pressure from legislators representing the cattle industry.

Mrs. Veneman also said the government would speed up the implementation of a national animal-identification system to track the origins and destinations of animals and meat.

“We’re announcing fairly aggressive actions today. We think they are appropriate actions, but there will be follow-up measures that we will be assessing as we go forward,” she said.

The steps are not expected to drastically affect consumer prices, Mrs. Veneman said. For example, only about 150,000 to 200,000 downer cattle would be eliminated from a total slaughter of more than 35 million.

Several food-industry and consumer groups had lobbied for such changes in the mad cow inspection system.

“This quick and effective action should be a great comfort to our consumers and our trading partners,” said Tim Hammonds, president and chief executive of the Food Marketing Institute, a group representing food retailers and wholesalers.

But some details of the new system remain vague. For example, the Agriculture Department now tests for mad cow disease at slaughterhouses, usually targeting downer animals for the inspection.

Such animals would no longer be sent to slaughterhouses, making it uncertain how federal inspectors will test any animals for the disease.

The beef industry has rejected such measures in the past.

In a statement released before Mrs. Veneman’s announcement, the American Meat Institute said: “While this may sound good, such a prohibition is not supported by science, would be a waste of perfectly safe beef and would indeed be counterproductive to USDA’s BSE surveillance.”

Following the announcement, the institute said it applauded the federal decision.

Additional government measures were announced yesterday:

• Animals tested for BSE will not be shipped to consumers until their test results return. In the case confirmed last week, the cow’s brain and spinal tissue were removed for testing while its carcass was sent on to processing plants.

The shipment led to a recall of more than 10,000 pounds of beef.

• Skull, brain, eyes, vertebrae, spinal cord and other nervous tissue from cattle more than 30 months of age, and the small intestine of all cattle, are banned from the food chain. Such tissue is considered most likely to transmit the disease.

• A certain slaughter technique that may dislocate brain tissue is banned.

• Mechanically separated meat, which may allow unwanted tissue into the product, is banned as human food.

Canada implemented many of these measures after a mad cow case discovered in May. U.S. officials had considered some of the safeguards for months but did not act until after confirmation of the disease last week in Washington state.

The federal measures are largely meant to prevent people from eating infected tissue and contracting the human version of the ailment, called new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a degenerative and fatal brain disorder.

New variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob is rare. As of Dec. 1, a total of 153 cases had been reported in the world: 143 from the United Kingdom, six from France, and one each from Canada, Ireland, Italy and the United States, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The American case was reported in a patient who lived in the United Kingdom before moving to the United States, the CDC said. Britain reported more than 180,000 mad cow cases since the 1980s, versus one in the United States and two in Canada during the last decade.

While rare, the potential spread of the disease has rattled the U.S. beef industry, which in this year expected an estimated $70 billion in retail sales and more than $3 billion in exports.

All major markets for U.S. beef exports have at least partially banned American meat following the mad cow announcement.

A U.S. trade team this week visited Japan and South Korea to discuss the ongoing investigation and lifting the trade ban, but those countries have barred American beef indefinitely.

U.S. officials hope the steps announced yesterday and results of an ongoing investigation will assuage trade partners and quickly reopen markets.

The infected animal was likely born in Canada before that country and the United States banned feed that spreads the fatal illness, officials said Monday. The animal’s age was given as a “likely explanation as to how this animal would have become infected,” said Ron DeHaven, chief veterinary officer for the U.S. Agriculture Department.

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