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Hueston tells WebMD that more prevention steps are warranted, including better diagnostic laboratories and increased spending in BSE research, along with better processes to identify and test high-risk cattle here.

Sen. Dick Durbin, (D-Ill.), said he planned to introduce legislation to tighten various precautions and install new safeguards. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, (R-Colo.), already has unveiled a bill that would set up a federal task force to coordinate prevention efforts.

Lawmakers at today's hearing agreed that further steps are important to maximally ensure safety.

"While the risks may be low, we cannot be complacent," said Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, (R-Ill.), chairman of the panel. "We need to do a lot in a lot of areas," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, (D-N.D.). Added Sen. Sam Brownback, (R-Kan.), "If we take the right steps, it's not going to get to America."

Some critics note that even the existing restrictions may not be fully effective. In a recent survey, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) noted the FDA found that more than 20% of feed mills didn't have a system to prevent co-mingling of feed lots and subsequent possible consumption of infected feed by cattle. But the agency said today that new inspections have seen a dramatic improvement in standards at the lots.

CSPI also noted that gelatin, which is used in flavored deserts and gummy candies, is an animal protein from cow and pig hides and bones. Risks of BSE infection from hides and bones appear very low, but the FDA has thus far simply asked that gelatin makers not use cow parts from countries that have had the disease.

Meanwhile, the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen expressed concern about dietary supplements, since some products contain extracts from cow glands. Some supplement firms now say that they are not using cow organs from countries with BSE, but the FDA lacks the authority to monitor what actually goes into the products.

"The agent that causes BSE has often found a way to pierce small chinks in the public health armor," warned Public Citizen's Peter Lurie, MD.

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