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.
In fact, recent FDA inspections have discovered that about one-third of the companies that process this type of animal feed for pigs and poultry lack a system to prevent it from accidentally being mixed into the feed meant for cattle. The FDA along with state investigators also discovered that a large number of the companies who repackage and sell this feed to livestock farmers fail to properly label their products.
Still, there is no reason for anyone to panic, Sundlof tells WebMD. The FDA expected to see some violations during the first round of inspections, he explains. The important thing is that when the investigators went back to re-inspect those facilities, the compliance rate was much higher, he says. It also is important to note that the FDA plans to inspect each and every facility, he tells WebMD.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture also has taken active steps to prevent the infectious agent from entering the country, Sundlof says. In fact, that agency has passed a rule banning the import of live cattle or animal feed from areas of the world where BSE cases have been documented, he tells WebMD.
The U.S. continues to carefully monitor the situation. Next week, advisers to the FDA will consider tightening restrictions on who can donate blood in the U.S. Current restrictions ban blood donations from people who have spent six or more months in the U.K. between January 1980 and December 1996. The initial cases of mad cow disease, or the new variant of CJD, were first documented in the U.K.
The new FDA proposal would expand that ban to people who have spent long periods in other countries now dealing with mad cow outbreaks, such as France and Germany.
Blood banks, however, have blamed this deferral policy for creating national blood shortages. But U.S. health officials stand by their ban, choosing to err on the side of caution rather than risk allowing potentially contaminated blood from entering the U.S. blood supply.
The FDA meeting to review blood donation restrictions is Jan. 18-19.