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Riding Herd on Mad Cow Disease

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"To a degree, when you compare the risk of this entity to other risks people are asked to take every day -- it pales in comparison," he tells WebMD.

The good news, Lumpkin says, is that federal regulators have now taken a number of steps to prevent the emergence of mad cow disease in the U.S. At present, he notes, federal law already prohibits the practice of feeding animal proteins to cattle, which is believed to be the original cause of the European epidemic.

In response to the heightened public concern, the FDA also is considering banning blood donations from long-term residents of France and Portugal, and tightening the oversight of dietary supplements made with animal parts from countries with confirmed cases of mad cow disease, Lumpkin says.

Meanwhile, the American Red Cross, which collects half the nation's blood supply, is considering an even tighter ban on blood donations from people who have spent time abroad.

With blood safety paramount, "in our judgment, it makes sense to us to include all of Europe, because that's where BSE has spread, and spread extensively," American Red Cross President and CEO Bernadine Healy, MD, tells WebMD. "We are going to extend the ban to Europe. We are still finalizing the time periods, but we think it will be one year in Europe. We are still trying to decide if it will be 3 or 6 months for U.K."

Going beyond FDA mandates is not unusual, adds Healy. "We think we're making the right call for our patients," she says. "These are very crude actions we're taking in the face of uncertainty, but hopefully they are only temporary steps until we get a test to screen blood."

Other consumer advocates maintain that there still are significant gaps in the U.S. safety net.

"We are mainly worried about dietary supplements," explains Peter Lurie, MD, MPH, a deputy director of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen and a member of the FDA expert advisory committee on BSE. "But we are also concerned about the high rate of noncompliance with federal regulations."

According to a recent FDA investigation, about 28% of American plants that grind cattle parts were unable to ensure that those bits would not get mixed into cattle feed. The FDA also found that 20% of American feed mills, where the food is packaged, failed to include a label to warn livestock farmers about the presence of the ground animal parts.

While it is forbidden to feed animal parts to cud chewing animals, such as sheep and cattle, because of mad cow disease, federal law still permits the feed to be made for poultry.

Since no cases of mad cow disease have been documented here, these facts do not necessarily mean that the U.S. inevitably will suffer from a mad cow epidemic, Lurie says. However, he says, these facts do demonstrate that federal regulators have failed to exercise their full authority.

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