April 16, 2001 (Washington) -- In spite of reassurances from government scientists, consumer groups say they're not satisfied that America's food supply is sufficiently protected from mad cow disease. Adding to these fears are persistent worries that the incurable illness may be present in a wide variety of products from blood to collagen injections to dissolvable surgical sutures.
"We still have no evidence that this disease either exists in cattle or in people in the United States," Murray Lumpkin, MD, senior advisor at the Food and Drug Administration, tells WebMD. "There's a message in that."
Mad cow disease has been linked to the consumption of beef contaminated by a mysterious protein known as a prion. Both cows and humans can contract the disease by eating contaminated food. In humans, the disease is called new variant Creutzfeld-Jakob disease.
So far in England, some 100 people have died from new variant Creutzfeld-Jakob disease. Still, the overall risk for contracting it in the U.S. is pretty small, say experts.
"For any individual consumer [it's] a low probability event," says Peter Lurie, MD, MPH, deputy director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group. "However, when you multiply that by hundreds of millions of people who eat cow in this country -- if it happens, it would be terrible."
As concern over a possible U.S. outbreak has grown, public health officials have taken a number of steps, including restrictions on some suspect ingredients in animal feed and a ban on importing cud-chewing animals from all of Europe. Also, the FDA has prohibited the use of mammalian protein in the manufacture of animal feed given to animals thought to be susceptible to mad cow disease.
However, at a daylong consumer briefing sponsored by the Food and Drug Administration, it was clear that critics of government policy aren't satisfied with these steps. For instance, Lurie says it's still possible that feeds not intended for cows can get consumed by the animals accidentally.
"The FDA's own data make it clear -- hundreds of feed manufacturers have still not been inspected, and hundreds of those that have do not have adequate procedures in place, either to adequately handle their products or, more importantly, to prevent the commingling of the different lines," he says Lurie.
Lurie also says he thinks that feed containing animal protein should not be given to pigs or poultry on the chance they could come down with mad cow disease or something like it.
According to the FDA, about 90% of U.S. rendering plants that handle materials from cud-chewing animals -- those most likely to develop a mad cow-like disease -- were found to be in compliance with the feed separation rule. The initial inspection visits, some 6,000 of them nationally, focused on education and record keeping.
"In addition to a strong feed rule, our best hope is to develop a rapid, inexpensive test to detect the presence of [mad cow disease] in living cattle," says Richard Wood, executive director of the Food Animal Concerns Trust.
And because prions are harder to kill than typical bacteria and viruses, even sterilized surgical instruments can be a risk. In the U.K., for example, where mad cow disease is a major public health problem, there's been talk about throwing away medical tools used in surgical procedures like tonsillectomies.
Why? In such operations, the instruments are exposed to a tremendous amount of white blood cells, where the disease-causing proteins can hide.
"One of the real issues here is the issue of resources," says the FDA's Lumpkin. "We try to use the resources that we have to focus on those kinds of products that we think are the highest risk products and go for that. Could we use more resources? Yes."
James Hodges, president of the American Meat Institute Foundation, says while it's impossible to reduce the threat of mad cow disease to zero, the multilayered controls in place are sufficient.
"All of the wailing and moaning from the consumer groups does not necessarily mean that our actual risks are very high," Hodges tells WebMD. "They're damn low."