SAN JOSE, Calif. (MCT) — America’s beef industry and federal agriculture officials spent much of the past week reassuring the public that the nation’s meat supply is safe, after the announcement that a California dairy cow tested positive for mad cow disease.
But even as investigators from the U.S. Department of Agriculture continue to comb through the herd and the records at a Tulare County farm where the animal came from, the fourth case of mad cow disease detected in the U.S. since 2003 is sparking new debate about whether food-safety laws are adequate to protect public health.
Consumer groups argue that many of America’s key meat safety standards are weaker than rules in Europe, Japan and other countries — and that attempts to strengthen them have been blocked by the meat and ranching industries. The groups say:
—The number of animals in the U.S. tested each year for mad cow disease is inadequate.
—The nation lacks a mandatory federal system to identify and track every cow.
—There are too many gaps in regulations affecting the quality of the feed that livestock eat.
“This shows the need for significant reform,” said Michael Hansen, a senior scientist with Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports magazine. “They need to take this seriously.”
Just how officials discovered the cow was infected with an atypical version of the fatal brain disease is at the center of the debate over whether the U.S. testing program is sufficient: The cow was part of a random testing program in Hanford on its way to a rendering plant. While state and federal health officials said the discovery shows the program works, critics say it shows the positive result was nothing more than a lucky accident.
Mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, can be transmitted to humans through eating meat tainted with infected brain or nerve tissue of an infected animal. It is not transmitted through consumption of milk, according to the World Health Organization.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and state and federal health officials say the public was not in danger because the California cow, a 10-year-old Holstein that died at the dairy farm, was heading for a rendering plant to be turned into fertilizer, pet food or another product, rather than meat for human consumption.
Furthermore, there has never been a confirmed case of mad cow disease connected with anyone eating U.S. beef. Three people in America have died of the disease over the past decade, but all spent time in England and Saudi Arabia, where they were believed to have caught it, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
People should be more concerned with common foodborne diseases from bacteria like E. coli or salmonella, said Dr. James Cullor, a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of California, Davis.
“If you think of the number of meals you eat every day, and the number of people in the United States, the risk is about 1 in 1 billion” of getting mad cow disease, Cullor said.
In contrast, each year roughly 48 million Americans are sickened and about 3,000 die of foodborne illnesses, according to the CDC. Last year, cantaloupes tainted by Listeria from a Colorado farm were responsible for 30 deaths. And in 2006, five people died and 205 were badly sickened from an outbreak of E. coli in bagged spinach from a farm in San Benito County, Calif.
But however low the risk is for mad cow disease, consumer and health groups note that during the major outbreak in the 1980s and 1990s in England, 150 people died, and 3.7 million cattle were slaughtered.
They say that to better ensure the disease or rare strains, like the one in last week’s incident, isn’t spreading, the USDA should increase testing. Currently, only 40,000 cows a year are tested — roughly 1 in 1,000 — out of 34 million cows slaughtered in the U.S. each year.
Japan, however, tests every cow over 20 months of age, and European nations test all cattle over 30 months.
“The fact that they only test 40,000 animals and they found this case means that there could very well be others out there,” Hansen said. “Think about it. If there is a single case out of 34 million animals that are slaughtered what’s the chance they found the only one?”
The USDA stepped up testing to 400,000 cows a year after the first U.S. case of mad cow disease was found in 2003 in Washington state, but then reduced it 90 percent by 2006 after only two cases were discovered nationwide.
In a famous case, the USDA even blocked one Kansas meat-packing company, Creekstone Farms, that wanted to test all of its animals in 2006 after the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association complained it could undermine confidence in other beef producers.
Beef producers say the current rules are higher than an international standard, however. And they emphasize that nobody has ever died from mad cow disease from U.S. beef. More tests would drive up food prices, they contend.
“When you see the risk is extremely low and the benefit to the public is virtually nonexistent because we’ve never had a case of the disease, you have to say, ‘Is it worth the cost?’ ” said veterinarian Dr. Tom Talbot, a Bishop rancher and chairman of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s Cattle Health and Well-Being Committee.
“We don’t need more regulations,” Talbot said.
Another point of controversy is the poor ability of the U.S. to track cattle. Six of the eight largest cattle exporters in the world — including Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and Canada — have mandatory systems to track each animal, record its age and other details. That way, when there’s a disease outbreak, the animal’s herd and farm can be quickly quarantined.
Even Botswana has a law that requires computer chips in every cow to track their origin. But the U.S. does not.
“The United States has first-world resources and technology but a Third World animal-identification system,” said Sarah Klein, a food-safety attorney with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C.
“If American cattlemen suffer economic losses at the news of this discovery of BSE,” she said, “they should blame only themselves and other opponents of a mandatory animal-identification system.”
An effort to establish a national ID system several years ago failed when some cattle ranchers complained that mandatory tracking was a cumbersome federal intrusion into their business, and that ear tags with computer chips cost $2 to $3 each and can fall off.
The USDA has new rules, due out later this year, that would mandate better tracking, but only in cattle that cross state lines.
Finally, some advocates also are calling for tougher feed rules. After the British outbreak, when it was discovered that the disease spread from cattle eating feed made with the contaminated tissue of other cattle and sheep, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1997 banned the use of cattle tissue in cattle feed. But the law still allows such tissue in livestock feed for pigs, sheep and chickens. And cattle are often fed “chicken litter,” a feed made of the feathers, feces and uneaten food from industrial poultry barns. Young calves also are given plasma from other cattle.
“We are what they eat,” Klein said. “So let’s make sure we close the loopholes.”
TESTING BY THE NUMBERS
40,000: Number of cows tested a year for mad cow disease out of 34 million cows slaughtered a year in the U.S.
In Japan: All cows over 20 months old are tested.
In Europe: All cows over 30 months old are tested.