Consumers Union urges USDA to step up mad cow testing

Consumers Union urges USDA to step up mad cow testing

Advocacy group cites studies that suggest L-type mad cow strain can be transmitted to humans, possibly more easily than the type that caused more than 100 deaths in the UK.

Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to take new measures to detect and prevent mad cow disease in U.S. beef and dairy cows, in light of USDA's announcement last week of a new case in a California dairy cow.

In letters to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, Consumers Union said that finding a case of mad cow in the USDA's current very small testing program is a “warning flag.” USDA tests only 40,000 of the 35 million cattle slaughtered in the U.S. annually.

Noting that USDA has confirmed that this case exhibited the “L-type” atypical mad cow strain, Consumers Union cites studies that suggest L-type can be transmitted to humans, possibly even more easily than “classical” Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), the type of mad cow disease that resulted in more than a hundred deaths in the United Kingdom.

“It is essential that USDA conduct a thorough investigation of this case, including testing of all of the infected cow’s offspring, and all cows that may ever have consumed the same feed, including current herd mates,” stated Dr. Michael Hansen, a senior scientist with Consumers Union, and an expert on BSE. The number of cattle tested for mad cow disease has fallen almost 90 percent since 2005, according to USDA’s own statistics.

The fact that this is an “L-type” atypical mad cow strain means that this case is not necessarily a spontaneous case, but rather could have been acquired through infected feed. “L-type” cases have been detected before in Europe and Canada.

“Consumers Union urges the USDA to increase its currently very small surveillance program of 40,000 tests annually by a factor of at least ten, for several years,” said Hansen. “It is surprising that the existing small testing program even detected this case, if in fact the incidence of mad cow in the U.S. is very low. We need to expand the program to at least the levels USDA used in 2004 and 2005 to insure that this deadly disease is not occurring anywhere else.”

“USDA should also augment its testing by allowing private companies to test, at their own expense,” Hansen added. “This would allow companies to expand beef exports to markets that require more testing, like Japan, while increasing the information available on U.S. cattle.” Currently, USDA does not allow private companies to test their own cattle for BSE.

Consumers Union also called on FDA to ban certain materials in cattle feed that could potentially transmit mad cow disease, urging in a letter to FDA Chief Hamburg that FDA should prohibit the use of chicken coop floor wastes in feed for beef and dairy cows, a practice in large-scale livestock operations.

“Beef slaughterhouse waste is fed to chickens, and a lot of the chicken waste then ends up being fed back to cattle,” said Hansen. “This should not be allowed, as we are turning cows into cannibals, the practice that started the mad cow problem in the first place.”

Consumers Union also urged FDA to prohibit all cattle brain and other high-risk material in animal feed, including pet food, since these are the tissues most likely to harbor the infectious mad cow agent. FDA currently prohibits brains from older cows in animal and pet food, but not brains from younger ones.

Finally, Consumers Union urged FDA to prohibit the use of cow blood in milk replacer for weaning calves, noting that blood transfusions are a known means of transmitting BSE infections.


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