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Feds Tighten Protections Against Mad Cow Disease

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Jan. 12, 2001 (Washington) -- Health authorities warned hundreds of animal feed makers this week that they could be shut down or even prosecuted if they continue to violate a 1997 rule designed to protect Americans from mad cow disease.

No infected animals have been found in the U.S. so far, despite active inspections. But regulatory authorities are becoming more and more concerned about the state of the U.S. meat supply because a growing body of evidence shows that even one contaminated animal can cause an epidemic, the FDA's chief veterinarian Stephen Sundlof, DVM, PhD, tells WebMD.

The rule forbids animal feed manufacturers from including red meat products in animal feed meant for cattle and other cud-chewing animals, such as sheep. The rule also requires companies selling this type of feed, which is safe for poultry and pigs, to label their products warning livestock farmers not to use it to feed cud-chewing animals.

The rule aims to prevent the spread of mad cow disease, or bovine sponigform encephalopathy (BSE), among cud-chewing animals. Experts believe the rare disease is spread when these animals are given feed contaminated with tissues from other infected animals.

But the rule was passed in large part because of the recent discovery that the same infectious agent that causes mad cow disease in cattle also causes a new version of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). And that people can get this fatal, brain-wasting disorder from eating contaminated meat.

In 1986, BSE quickly swept through herds of cattle in the U.K., resulting in the death of an estimated 80 people. And now, Sundlof notes, Germany, France, and other European countries also are finding contaminated livestock.

"The problem in Europe is a matter of enforcement," Sundlof says. If the animal feed makers there had followed rules and regulations similar to the one the FDA is now trying to enforce, then the spread of both BSE and the new variant of CJD could have been controlled, he explains. "We are taking a lesson from that," Sundlof tells WebMD.

By preventing animal feed makers from including red meat proteins from cows, sheep, goats, deer, or elk in the feed of cud-chewing animals, U.S. regulatory authorities believe they can prevent an epidemic in the U.S. -- even if the infectious agent should make its way overseas, he says.

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