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Mad-cow scrutiny is scaled way back
Seattle Times staff reporter
While Washington ranchers are raising a fuss over Canadian cattle and the danger of mad-cow disease, the region's only mad-cow testing lab is quietly preparing to close March 1.
The lab at Washington State University in Pullman opened after the nation's first mad-cow case spurred a flurry of new safeguards against the fatal, brain-wasting disease.
But three years later, many of those measures are being dismantled. Others proposed after the infected dairy cow was discovered in Mabton, Yakima County, never materialized.
Dec. 30, 2003: The U.S. Department of Agriculture bans "downer" cattle, those too sick or injured to walk, from the food supply.
Jan. 26, 2004: The Food and Drug Administration proposes banning feeding cow blood, chicken manure and food scraps to cattle.
June 1, 2004: USDA launches a program to test at least 220,000 animals for mad-cow over the next 12 to 18 months.
November 2004: USDA starts a voluntary pilot program to track and identify cattle in seven Western states.
May 2005: Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns says a mandatory, nationwide animal-tracking system will be in place by 2009.
June 24, 2005: Tests of a Texas beef cow confirm the second case of mad-cow disease in the U.S.
March 2006: The nation's third case of mad-cow disease is confirmed in a cow in Alabama.
April 2006: USDA says it will scale back mad-cow testing after determining the prevalence of the disease in the nation's cattle herd is "extraordinarily low."
Nov. 22, 2006: USDA reverses its plans and says the national animal-tracking program will be voluntary, not mandatory.
Jan. 4, 2007: USDA says it may lift a ban on the importation of older cows from Canada.
Last week: Canada reports its ninth mad-cow case.
Source: Seattle Times archives
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently scaled back mad-cow testing by more than 90 percent, leading to closure of the WSU lab and several others around the country. The agency has backed off plans for a mandatory animal-tracking system, which can help identify the source of an infection and other animals at risk, and now says the program will be voluntary.
Several of the unappetizing — and risky — practices that came to light in the wake of the initial mad-cow case are still allowed, including the use of cow blood as a food supplement for calves.
And even the prohibition on slaughtering sickly cows, called downers, for human consumption has not been made permanent, though it is being enforced.
"There have been some improvements, but USDA stopped short of implementing several important programs that are vital not only to protect against [mad-cow], but to protect the industry against other diseases," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit consumer-advocacy group.
The USDA says mad-cow is very rare in the United States, and costly testing and tracking programs aren't necessary. Out of 759,000 animals tested after the initial mad-cow scare, only two other infected cows were found.
The local cattle industry is most upset by USDA's proposal to reopen the border to shipments of older cattle from Canada. The first U.S. mad-cow case was an old Holstein shipped from Canada, and ranchers don't want a repeat of the furor in December 2003 that led dozens of nations to boycott American beef, said Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen's Association.
The USDA believes the cow became infected in Canada by eating contaminated feed. The disease can take years to develop, so older cows are considered at higher risk.
Just last week, Canada reported its ninth case of mad-cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE.
What is it?
Mad-cow disease is a chronic, degenerative disease of the brain and spinal cord in cattle, clinically known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). Cattle get the disease through contaminated meat and bone meal fed to the animal as a protein source. Scientists say the disease is transmitted to humans almost certainly by eating infected beef. No one is known to have contracted the disease in the United States.
"Clearly, there's still an issue there with BSE," Field said.
Mad-cow disease has infected more than 180,000 cattle worldwide since it was first discovered in Great Britain in 1986. About 150 people have died from the human form of the disease, which scientists say is almost certainly caused by eating infected beef. No one is known to have contracted the disease in the U.S.
Field's group is backing bills in the state Legislature to strengthen tagging and tracking of Canadian cattle imported to the United States and make it clear that violators can be fined up to $1,000 per animal.
But local and national cattle groups have fiercely objected to similarly strict tracking for American animals, which is one of the reasons USDA abandoned its push for a mandatory system.
Because animal tracking is so spotty, investigators were never able to locate all of the cattle that were shipped from Canada with the first infected cow, DeWaal pointed out. The same problems arose after the two other infected animals were found, one in Texas and one in Alabama. Both were born in the U.S.
Animal tracking: A proposed mandatory animal-tracking system will be voluntary.
Cattle feed: The use of cow blood as a food supplement for calves is still allowed.
Slaughter restrictions: A temporary ban on the slaughter of ailing cows for human consumption has not been made permanent.
Canadian imports: A ban on older cows from Canada may be lifted.
If another case turned up in Washington today, state veterinarian Leonard Eldridge concedes, it would be no easier to figure out where the animal came from or locate other cattle that could have eaten the same feed — considered the most likely route of infection.
"The need is still there to be able to identify animals and contain a disease quickly," he said.
BSE does not appear to jump from animal to animal, but without a good tracking system, it would be difficult to stop the spread of more highly infectious diseases, Eldridge said.
Canada has adopted a mandatory tracking system that requires detailed record-keeping and radio-frequency ear tags.
But when the Cattle Producers of Washington sifted through hundreds of pages of documents on younger Canadian animals, which are currently allowed into the state, they found that many lacked the required ID tags, paperwork often didn't match health records and at least one animal infected with ringworm entered the U.S.
"What it really boiled down to is that the Canadian system is not even coming close to working properly," said Willard Wolf, the Spokane cattle broker who is the industry group's vice president.
USDA spokeswoman Andrea McNally dismissed the problems as "minor record-keeping" issues, but said the agency is still investigating.
Wolf said he's opposed to mandatory tracking in the United States because it's expensive and not feasible for America's vast rangelands or the complex way cattle are shipped around the country. He favors an expansion of the existing system of brands.
The Washington Department of Agriculture estimates only about 6 percent of the state's cattle owners have registered the location where they keep animals, the first step in a voluntary tracking system.
Almost all European nations have animal-tracking systems. Many would like to import American beef, but are wary because the system here is so haphazard, said Mo Salman, a mad-cow expert from Colorado State University. "Sometimes they laugh at us," he said.
Most European and Asian nations also test a much higher percentage of animals for mad-cow disease than the United States does.
USDA boosted testing in 2004. During an 18-month period, a total of 759,000 animals were tested, including 45,000 in the Northwest.
The fact that only two additional cases turned up proves that BSE is exceedingly rare in the U.S, McNally said. That's why the agency decided to scale back the costly program and target only about 40,000 animals a year. U.S. testing still exceeds the recommendations of the World Organization for Animal Health.
USDA's inspector general had criticized USDA's expanded testing program, saying it could have missed the highest-risk animals. The expanded system was voluntary, so it might not have captured a representative sample of the nation's herd.
"It's as though the USDA was designing a 'don't look, don't find' system," said Michael Hansen, staff scientist for Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports.
Instead of mad-cow testing, Salman of Colorado State University said the agency should improve enforcement of the two rules that provide the best defense against BSE: a ban on processing cattle parts into cattle feed — a practice that is believed to have touched off Britain's mad-cow epidemic; and rules to keep the most infective cow parts, like brains and spinal cords, out of the human food supply.
Even those measures have fallen short, according to an analysis by the consumer group Public Citizen that found more than 800 violations in slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants in 2004 and 2005.
Slaughterhouse waste and dead cattle are still used to make chicken, pig and pet food. The federal government is considering rules that would ban the brains and spinal cords of older cattle from all animal feed, but a wide range of critics say the rules still leave some dangerous loopholes. One is the practice of using cattle blood in formula fed to young calves.
Among those calling for tighter restrictions is the McDonald's Corp.
The hamburger chain buys more beef than any other restaurant, the company pointed out in a letter commenting on the animal-feed proposal.
Though McDonald's does everything it can to reduce the risk of mad-cow, "we feel that the force of federal regulation is important to ensure that the risk of exposure in the entire production system is as close to zero as possible," the letter says. "The exemptions in the current ban as well as in the newly proposed rule make this difficult, if not impossible."
Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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