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Tuesday, January 06, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Cows come home in host of products
By Stephanie Simon
It was just one cow, one lame, worn-out Holstein dragged to slaughter in a corner of the country. But the discovery that the cow in Eastern Washington was infected with mad-cow disease has forced broader scrutiny of the U.S. food supply.
The positive test, disclosed just before Christmas, has pulled back a curtain on the alchemistic processes that convert every last scrap of slaughtered livestock into ingredients for consumer products: marshmallows and cereal bars, dog food and feed for poultry, lipstick and hand lotion and garden fertilizers, tires and yogurt and breath mints.
Federal officials and most outside experts continue to reassure the public that the risk from the one sick Holstein is extremely minimal "virtually zero," according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
As the USDA repeatedly has noted, the mutant proteins, known as prions, that cause mad-cow disease do not concentrate in the muscle tissue that provides our steaks, roasts and ground beef. Instead, the deadly prions tend to group in the brain, spinal column, intestines and bone marrow.
Freeze-dried bovine brains and other organs also turn up in dietary supplements sold in health-food stores.
Bits of spinal tissue or bone sometimes slip into the 45 million pounds of beef a year that is trimmed off carcasses through a mechanized process known as Advanced Meat Recovery.
Humans can contract a form of mad-cow, known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, from eating infected animal products. The illness is always fatal.
To minimize the risk from beef byproducts, the USDA announced several broad reforms last week. It will closely regulate mechanical meat stripping. Cattle intestines, where the fatal prions might first take root, will no longer be allowed in the human food supply. The USDA is also banning consumption of the brains and spinal cords from older cattle, which are most likely to be infected and infectious.
But as many as 85 percent of the cattle slaughtered in the U.S. are young steers; their organs (except intestines) can still enter the food supply. Several cases of mad-cow in young cattle have been confirmed abroad. The disease is formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE.
Some public-health and consumer advocates warn of other gaps in the safety net including loopholes that could potentially speed the transmission of mad-cow disease through U.S. herds if a few infected cows slipped through the system undetected.
The mad-cow scare has exposed the U.S. food supply as a complex chain ever twisting back on itself a system in which nothing is wasted. The efficiencies help keep food cheap. They also solve a major environmental challenge; billions of pounds of animal brains, hides, bones, feathers and guts are reused each year, rather than burned or buried.
"Our ancestors used everything but the moo, and we continue to try to do that," said Will Hueston, director of the Center for Animal Health and Food Safety at the University of Minnesota.
That efficiency, however, could open the door for contamination because one carcass is turned into so many products and recycled through so many paths.
Any livestock carcasses that pass USDA inspection at the slaughterhouse they are not necessarily tested for disease but are visually examined can enter the food supply.
Considered edible waste, the carcasses are processed into lard, beef tallow and gelatin. Those ingredients then are used in a surprising range of foods, from candy to canned ham, sour cream to frosting, lozenges to soups. Gelatin even turns up in the gel-caps used for some pharmaceuticals.
The Gelatin Manufacturers Institute of America says that most gelatin made for human consumption is prepared from pig skins, but it is sometimes made from cattle bones.
The Food and Drug Administration does not inspect the ingredients that go into making gelatin, said Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine. He said the agency's lawyers are still exploring whether the FDA has the authority to set standards for the types of animal waste used in the edible-rendering process.
The FDA inspects all 239 U.S. rendering plants annually, but only to make sure any animal feed containing cattle parts is clearly labeled. It does not inspect the production of ingredients for human consumption, such as lard and tallow.
"We're still trying to look into what all comes out of that rendering stream," Sundlof said.
The FDA is also researching steps to ensure the safety of unregulated dietary supplements. Popular pills known as "glandulars" marketed to boost energy and libido often contain concentrated extracts from cattle glands and organs, such as the pituitary, liver, testicles and brain.
"I can assure you, if there is a problem, we're looking into that," Sundlof said.
Experts say that rendering does not kill the deadly prions that spread BSE. But they also made clear that the chance of infection from any rendered product is extremely low.
Only the barest traces of cattle remains would be present in, say, canned soup or gummy candy. And given that only one infected cow has been found in the United States, "I don't look at (rendered products) as being much of a risk at all," said Leon Thacker, director of the animal disease diagnostic lab at Purdue University.
The FDA says all rendered products traced to the Holstein infected with mad-cow disease have been put on a "voluntary hold," meaning the factories that made them are not supposed to release them for sale.
If the edible-rendering market is largely hidden from public view, the parallel practice of inedible rendering is even more obscure.
Inedible-rendering plants take in all the livestock that the USDA deems unfit for human consumption, including cows that died from unexplained causes on the farm or arrived at the slaughterhouse visibly ill.
Some rendering plants also process dogs and cats that were euthanized in animal shelters, carcasses brought in by hunters, even road kill. They melt everything down at high temperatures, sterilize it repeatedly and turn it into livestock feed, pet food, organic fertilizer and glycerine an ingredient used in products ranging from crayons to cosmetics, tape to fabric softener.
In 1997, the FDA acted on concerns that animal feed containing rendered cattle could rapidly, and disastrously, spread BSE. The mad-cow outbreak that ravaged Britain's herds in the 1980s was spread in just that manner.
So the U.S. began insisting that all animal feed containing rendered cattle be labeled. U.S. farmers were allowed to feed it only to poultry and swine species not known to contract BSE through infected rations.
Federal officials have repeatedly described that policy as a firewall protecting the United States from a Britain-style epidemic of mad-cow. But as public-health advocates have noted in recent days, the system is not airtight.
For instance, when feed containing rendered cattle is given to poultry, some of it scatters on the floor as the birds peck at it. The floor also is thick with excrement, feathers, dirt and bits of straw. Rather than throw all that waste away, farmers sweep it up and recycle it by selling it as cattle feed.
The ban on cattle eating cattle is circumvented in other ways, too. It's legal to feed cattle dry pet food that is past its expiration date. Yet that pet food is made from cattle carcasses. Los Angeles Times researcher Lianne Hart in Houston contributed to this report.
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