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USDA Beefs Up Meat Safety Precautions

New Restrictions to Add Extra Layer of Protection Against Mad Cow Disease

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Dec. 30, 2003 -- In response to the first case of mad cow disease found on American soil, the USDA today announced "aggressive" new measures designed to further protect the food supply from the disease.

"While we are confident that the United States has safeguards and firewalls needed to protect public health, these additional actions will further strengthen our protection systems," says Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman.

The new restrictions include banning cows unable to walk on their own from the U.S. food supply as well as brains or other high-risk components from cows older than 30 months.

Mad cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is a disease that affects the brain and nervous system of cows and is spread primarily through eating infected tissue.

Under the new restrictions, the infected dairy cow found in the U.S. would not have been slaughtered at the Washington state facility because it was unable to stand on its own, known as a "downer" cow. Veneman estimates that downer cows account for about 150,000-200,000 of the 35 million cows slaughtered annually in the U.S.

In addition, USDA inspectors will no longer mark cows as "inspected and passed" for mad cow disease until test results confirm that the animals have tested negative for the disease. Instead, these animals will be held until the test results are back rather than allowing the meat to enter the food supply.

Under the previous system, animals thought to be at increased risk for the disease due to older age or downer status were selected for mad cow disease screening but allowed to proceed through the slaughter process. In the case of the infected cow in Washington, the meat was distributed to at eight least states and later recalled.


New Meat Safety Regulations

Veneman says the new regulations will take effect immediately and are similar to those implemented by other countries where mad cow disease has been found.

Major changes include:

  • Downer animals: Any animal unable to walk on its own is banned from entering the U.S. food supply.
  • Product holding: Animals selected for mad cow disease screening will be held until test results confirm that the animal does not have the disease.
  • High-risk parts: Brain, spinal cord, and other nervous system-related tissue from cows older than 30 months are prohibited from entering in the U.S. food supply. The small intestine of cattle of all ages is also prohibited.

Other changes affect the procedures during the slaughter process in order to reduce the risk of spreading infected tissue.

Researchers say older cows are considered high-risk for mad cow disease because they may have eaten contaminated feed prior to the protective feed bans enacted in August 1997. In addition, once a cow is infected with mad cow disease it takes 3-6 years before symptoms emerge.

Adding Extra Layer of Safety

Officials say many of the changes announced today have been in the works since the first case of mad cow disease was found in Canada in May in order to better monitor the beef supply.

"These actions do not suggest in any way that that meat produced under the current system is unsafe," says Ron DeHaven, DVM, chief veterinary officer at the USDA. "For years, we have had a feed ban in place, high-risk materials from this infected cow were removed, and the meat produced on the day that this positive cow was slaughtered is being recalled.

"Just like with the meat recall, we are making these further enhancements to our system out of an abundance of caution," says DeHaven.

DeHaven says the exact details of how the new measures will affect the USDA inspection process and screening for mad cow disease are yet to be worked out. For example, it's unclear whether downer animals will be allowed to be rendered and used in the production of animal feed, which falls under the jurisdiction of the FDA.

"Those are kinds of details that are yet to be resolved," says DeHaven.


What is mad cow disease?

Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is a transmissible, slowly progressive, degenerative, and fatal disease affecting the central nervous system of adult cattle. The USDA tests some 20,000 animals every year for this disease.

Researchers believe that the infectious agent that causes mad cow disease is a protein normally found on cell surfaces, called a prion. For reasons still unknown, this protein becomes altered to become disease producing.

Does cooking food kill the prion that causes mad cow disease?

Common methods to eliminate disease-causing organisms in food, like heat, do not affect prions. Also, prions only seem to live in nervous system tissue.

Does mad cow disease affect humans?

A human version of mad cow disease called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) is believed to be caused by eating nerve tissue, such as brain and spinal cord, from cattle infected with mad cow disease. For this reason, the USDA requires that all nervous system materials be removed from cattle that are unable to walk -- an indication that there may be a neurological problem. These cow products do not enter the U.S. food supply. The USDA believes this practice effectively safeguards U.S. public health from vCJD.

According to the CDC, no cases of vCJD have been identified in the U.S.

Having said that, it is important to clarify the differences between variant CJD and another form of the disease, referred to as classic CJD. Classic CJD occurs each year at a rate of 1 to 2 cases per 1 million people throughout the world, including in the U.S. and other countries where mad cow disease has never occurred. It is not linked to the consumption of nerve tissue from mad cow disease-affected cattle -- both vegetarians and meat eaters have died from classic CJD.

What are the symptoms of vCJD?

The disease affects all age groups and is very hard to diagnose until it has nearly run its course. In its early stages, people have symptoms related to the nervous system, like dementia and jerking muscle movements. But only in advanced stages of the disease can brain abnormalities be detected by X-ray or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).


Is it possible to get vCJD from eating food purchased in the U.S.?

It is extremely unlikely that this would happen. To prevent mad cow disease from entering the country, since 1989 the federal government has prohibited the importation of certain types of live animals from countries where mad cow disease is known to exist. This ban includes meat products used in human, animal, and pet foods.

Can you get vCJD from drinking milk from an infected cow?

Milk and milk products are not believed to pose any risk for transmitting mad cow disease to humans. Experiments have shown that milk from mad cow-infected cows has not caused infections.

What about other products produced from cow by-products?

The FDA stops the importation of cosmetic and dietary supplement ingredients containing bovine materials from animals originating in the 33 countries where mad cow disease has been found or from animals at risk of being infected.

What is the current risk to American consumers traveling to foreign countries?

According to the CDC, the current risk of acquiring vCJD from any specific country appears to be extremely small. But that cannot be precisely determined because cattle products from one country might be distributed and consumed in others.

How long have health officials been concerned about mad cow disease?

Mad cow disease has been of great concern since 1986, when it was first reported among cattle in the U.K. At its peak in January 1993, almost 1,000 new cases per week were identified.

What other countries have reported cases of mad cow disease?

The disease also has been confirmed in native-born cattle in Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, and Switzerland.

Canada has also been added to the list of countries from which imports are restricted, although that ban has been lifted recently. Importation of minimal-risk meat products is now allowed from Canada.

WebMD Health News


SOURCES: Ann M. Veneman, secretary, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Ron DeHaven, DVM, chief veterinary officer, USDA. FDA.