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Brain & Nervous System Health Center

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Udderly Clean: No 'Mad Cow' in U.S., Feds Claim

WebMD Health News

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.

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