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Thursday, February 05, 2004 - Page updated at 01:28 P.M.
Experts predict more U.S. cases of mad cow
More American cattle probably are infected with mad-cow disease, and the federal government needs to expand its testing program and tighten feed rules to prevent the infection from spreading, a panel of international experts said yesterday.
It's unlikely the single Holstein discovered in Washington state is the only sick animal ever imported into the country from Canada, and possibly Europe, panel members said at a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) meeting.
Since none of the other animals was detected, their infected tissues were almost certainly processed into cattle feed years ago, spreading and amplifying the disease "so that cattle in the U.S.A. have also been indigenously infected," says a report presented to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman.
Panel chairman Ulrich Kihm, former chief veterinary officer of Switzerland, estimated that one new U.S. mad-cow case a month might appear, based on the experience of other European countries.
Though the rate of infection is low, the government should consider several steps, including a ban on the use in human and animal food of brains, spinal cords and other high-risk tissue from animals older than one year, Kihm said. The panel also recommended a ban on the use of all mammal and bird protein in cattle feed.
Its recommendations could be influential, because many countries that banned imports of U.S. beef have been waiting to hear the international experts' verdict before resuming commerce.
Consumer advocates praised the report, which they said validated many of their criticisms of the U.S. mad-cow safety net.
"It's a bombshell," said Michael Hansen, senior research analyst at Consumers Union. "If the government will take these recommended steps, this would get us virtually there" in terms of lowering the mad-cow risk.
Industry reacted strongly against the report, and predicted the proposals, if adopted, would have substantial impacts on everyone involved in the beef business from cattle growers earning less per animal to consumers paying more for less variety at the meat counter.
Some groups also questioned the validity of the report, which they said used European background with mad-cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), to draw conclusions about the spread of the disease and the need for action in the U.S.
The disease is believed to spread when cows eat feed that contains infected tissue from other cows or related animals, called ruminants.
That compares with two cases found in the U.S. and Canada. Industry officials said the North American incidence of BSE is low because of import restrictions and a 1997 rule barring ruminant protein from feed for other ruminants.
While cattle protein from risk material can be fed to chickens and pigs, and vice versa, the panel recommendation would ban it in cattle feed. The panel's proposal reaches well beyond changes in feed and processing rules USDA made in January, including banning downer, or ill, animals from the human food supply.
The panel's report said eliminating animal-based feeds from cattle diets will eliminate the risk that cattle will accidentally be fed protein supplements contaminated at feed mills that also produce pig or chicken feed, which can legally contain cow parts.
The feed restrictions could produce a hefty disposal problem for 50 billion pounds of bones, brains, spinal cords and other byproducts produced by slaughterhouses each year.
Rendering plants currently convert those tissues to protein powder that is put back into animal feeds.
"If in fact they prohibit risk material from going to rendering for products that may end up as feed, then you've got an issue," said Gayland Pedhirney, president of Washington Beef, the second-largest slaughterhouse and meat-packing plant in Washington state, after Tyson's plant in Pasco.
Meat processors would lose income from selling the byproducts, but would face an even bigger cost to dispose of it.
"We're talking about 360,000 pounds of stuff to go to the landfill every week and we're a relatively small processor," Pedhirney said.
Landfills might not accept the material, because it is about half water, said National Renderers Association president Tom Cook.
Cook estimates the change would cost about $15 per head of cattle and said packers would try to pass that cost back to cattlemen.
Richard Sellers, vice president of the American Feed Industry Association, said a recent industry analysis put total losses to farmers, renderers and feed manufacturers at $100 million if a ban was imposed on feeding animal protein to cattle.
Industry representatives also said the ban on high-risk materials such as brains, spinal cords and intestines from animals older than 12 months would require them to retool slaughterhouses to separate cattle by age, which would cost consumers more.
A USDA spokeswoman said the agency will consider the panel's recommendations, but hasn't decided yet to adopt any of them.
Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or email@example.com
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