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

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"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.

The task of containing mad cow disease is complicated by the tremendous variety of products containing bovine material, including dietary supplements, skin implants, and vaccines.

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."

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