Natural Foods Merchandiser

USDA Seeks Comments On Mad Cow Proposals

The U.S. government is considering new regulations that would continue to protect consumers and the meat industry from bovine spongiform encephalopathy, better known as "mad cow disease."

In the Jan. 17 Federal Register, the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the Department of Agriculture requested public comments and data on the potential costs, benefits and feasibility of its proposed measures.

Among potential policy options:

  • limiting human consumption of the potentially most infectious portions from cattle, including spinal cord tissue and brain. These parts are considered a delicacy by some ethnic groups and are popular in England;
  • prohibiting use of central nervous system tissue in boneless beef products, such as hot dogs and other processed meats, and use of intestines for natural sausage casings;
  • restricting use of meat from mechanized advanced meat recovery systems, a mechanized production process;
  • prohibiting use of spinal columns from certain cattle, including unhealthy animals that can't walk.

"We're constantly learning more about BSE from countries that have it, and these ideas are similar to theirs," said Carol Blake, spokeswoman for the FSIS. "It's up to industry to decide if they want to comply now."

Meat industry officials, however, are likely to resist any regulatory proposals. The American Meat Institute, the Arlington, Va.-based trade association for meat and poultry packers and processors, considers the new options unnecessary.

"There's no reason to place these limitations because there's no BSE in this country," said spokeswoman Janet Riley. "The existing triple firewall of animal import controls, feed controls and aggressive surveillance means we're unlikely to get it. Placing costly limitations on very safe products is probably premature, since they could be implemented very quickly if needed."

Last year, the AMI countered calls to curtail AMRS use on back and neck bones. It "will increase the potential for worker illness and will waste millions of pounds of nutritious meat," AMI said in a statement last August.

The American red meat industry rang up $80 billion in sales in 1997, according to the most recent data from the Department of Commerce.

An industry expert praised the USDA for taking on the task of considering new regulations. "It's a very prudent step to put it up for discussion," said Will Huston, DVM, Ph.D., director of the center for animal health and food safety at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul. "If we never get BSE, people will ask why we spent money on this. If we see BSE, we'll be criticized for not taking more aggressive actions. It's pragmatic and wise to evaluate measures and their impacts even if they're never implemented."

The USDA places no time limit on accepting public comments. Consequently, any new federal regulations will take years to develop and formalize. The USDA has an emergency plan in place just in case BSE appears.

Study Shows Low Risk
A three-year Harvard University study, released Nov. 30, 2001, concluded that the United States is highly resistant to the introduction of BSE. Existing measures taken by government and industry provide effective controls that would minimize the spread of BSE to animals and humans if it were introduced to the country's food chain.

To prevent an outbreak, the Food and Drug Administration has repeatedly advised manufacturers to purchase animal tissues or components only from countries where BSE does not exist.

"It's up to manufacturers to make sure sources don't contain BSE elements," said an FDA representative, who declined to be identified. "Dietary supplements and cosmetics containing bovine materials from animals originating in the 31 countries where BSE has been found, or that pose a risk of its being found there, are excluded from the United States. The FDA requires that gelatin-containing products, such as candy or capsules, imported from countries identified as having risk for BSE, be manufactured under specific guidance and certified to ensure they are safe for American consumers."

Keeping America Clean
Although it may be possible for infected animals to transmit BSE through transfusions or pregnancy, the main cause appears to be animal feed containing remains of infected animals. The USDA, FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have worked with the meat industry to keep out BSE. Prior measures include prohibiting mammal protein in feed processing; banning cattle imports, their by-products, and other animals from known trouble spots; and inspecting suspect animals before slaughter. In 2000, the FDA and USDA banned imports of rendered animal proteins from 31 countries, and began to allow inspectors to detain shipments from these countries.

"Milk and milk products are still imported from these countries because they are not believed to pose any risk for transmitting BSE to humans," said an FDA spokesman.

The prevention system, however, is not perfect. Between 1998 and 2000, the FDA conducted nearly 10,000 inspections in the United States of companies involved in the processing, distribution and use of animal feed. It found that almost one-fourth were not in compliance with current standards. Less than 85 percent of the 180 renderers handling prohibited materials were in compliance. The FDA is conducting additional inspections of noncompliant facilities.

The World Health Organization notes that milk and milk products are considered safe, but advises removal of lymphatic and nervous system tissue from meat, and avoidance of any tissue that may come from deer or elk, domestic or wild, with any illness.

Fort Collins, Colo., writer Wendy L. Bonifazi has received more than 15 national awards for her coverage of health, medicine and aging.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 3/p. 22-23

BSE Explained

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy is one of several fatal brain diseases that affect different animal species. These transmissible spongiform encephalopathies cause deterioration of brain tissue and severe neurological symptoms. TSEs cause chronic wasting disease in certain North American deer and elk, scrapie in sheep and goats, and five human illnesses, including Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Both CJD and vCJD cause slow, irreversible degeneration of the central nervous system and brain, resulting in loss of motor skills, dementia and death. Worldwide, classic CJD strikes approximately one person per million annually. Victims, typically older than 65, usually die within six months of contracting the disease.

Since the United Kingdom reported vCJD in 1996, there have been 119 cases reported worldwide. The average age of victims is 27, and survival after infection averages 13 months. Although most TSEs are considered species-specific, researchers concluded that eating BSE-infected meat is the probable cause.

Many researchers believe TSEs are caused by "prions"—abnormal self-replicating proteins. Others believe the agent is similar to a virus.

TSEs resist disinfectants, heat, ultraviolet light and radiation, all of which normally inactivate or destroy viruses and bacteria. TSEs also survive freezing, drying and temperatures used for cooking, pasteurization and sterilization.

No test readily detects BSE in live animals, or TSEs in asymptomatic humans. Diagnosis can only be made by examining brain tissue after death. Neither blood tests for antibodies nor vaccines are available because TSEs do not trigger obvious immune responses.

BSE, first identified in the United Kingdom in 1986, peaked there in January 1993 when 1,000 new cases a week were reported. A total of 181,368 animals were infected. Incubation appears to be two to eight years.

Since 1989, outside the United Kingdom, 2,699 BSE cases have been confirmed worldwide. Almost all the cases reported occurred in European countries.

Scientists believe the source of the BSE outbreak in the United Kingdom was cattle feed made from carcasses, including cows and sheep infected with scrapie. The lethal ingredient survived processing into meat- and bonemeal and other feed components.

The United Kingdom banned brain and central nervous system proteins in animal feed in 1988, and later banned organs and trimmings, such as tails and hooves, in foods. In 1996, sales of human food products, tallow and gelatin containing U.K. beef were banned. In 1999, the European Union lifted the ban for certain beef, such as deboned meat from animals under 30 months old from farms where BSE has not been detected.

During 10 years of surveillance, there has been no evidence of vCJD or BSE detected in the United States.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 3/p. 23

BSE: Want To Know More?

The new Federal Safety and Inspection Services report, "BSE Current Thinking Paper," and the study conducted by the Harvard University School of Public Health are both available at:

Submit written comments to the USDA at: FSIS docket room, Room 102, 300 12th St. S.W., Washington, DC 20250-3700. All comments will become part of the public record.

The International Office for Epizootic Diseases maintains a complete list of the countries where BSE has been found and where its existence is suspected. See the list at:

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 3/p. 23

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.