Palaces For The People
Thursday, December 25, 2003
Mad Cow Case May Bring More Meat Testing
YIKES -- Talk about animal cruelty...
As the American beef industry struggles with its first case of mad cow disease, the Department of Agriculture is debating whether to do far more screening of meat and change the way meat from suspect animals is used, department officials say.
The officials declined to say exactly what they would recommend, but acknowledged that European and Japanese regulators screened millions of animals using tests that take only three hours, fast enough to stop diseased carcasses from being cut up for food.
United States inspectors have tested fewer than 30,000 of the roughly 300 million animals slaughtered in the last nine years, and they get results days or weeks later.
But the American system was never intended to keep sick animals from reaching the public's refrigerators, said Dr. Ron DeHaven, the Agriculture Department's chief veterinarian.
It is "a surveillance system, not a food safety test," Dr. DeHaven said in an interview on Wednesday.
Statistically, it is meant to ensure finding the disease only if it exists in one in a million animals, and only after slaughter.
A beef industry spokesman said Wednesday that cattlemen would endorse adopting more rapid tests.
Western European countries generally test all cattle over two years old, all sick cattle and a small percentage of apparently healthy ones. Last year, they tested 10 million cows. Japan tests all the cows it slaughters each year, 1.2 million.
Dr. DeHaven said Japan tested too much, "like a doctor testing every patient who comes through the door for prostate cancer."
Yesterday the Agriculture Department said that it had received confirmation of its own tests from the Veterinary Laboratories Agency in Waybridge, England, that a Holstein cow that was slaughtered on Dec. 9 had the degenerative brain ailment bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. More testing is planned.
An official close to the investigation said the cow came from Sunny Dene Ranch in Mabton, Wash., which has about 4,000 dairy cows.
American beef is still "extremely safe," said Dr. Daniel L. Engeljohn, a policy analysis official in the Food Safety and Inspection Service in the Agriculture Department, but the discovery of the disease "will spur the U.S. to look at the preventive measures it's had in place for the last decade."
Critics of the industry called the current testing inadequate and said they had been warning for years that mad cow disease was in American cattle but undetected because too few animals were tested.
They accused the Department of Agriculture of failing to be a vigilant guardian over the nation's dinner table and said it did not fulfill the common claim that its inspectors test all obviously sick cows.
How many "downers" — cows too sick to walk — are slaughtered each year is in dispute. The beef industry says the number is only about 60,000 among older animals, while animal rights advocates cite figures based on European herds that suggest the number is nearly 700,000.
The Agriculture Department said its best guess was from a 1999 beef industry survey that estimated there were 195,000 downers on ranches, feedlots and slaughterhouses that year.
In any case, only 20,526 animals were tested last year; through the 1990's, only a few hundred were tested annually.
Which downers might have mad cow disease is also in dispute.
Dr. DeHaven said inspectors tested animals that were twitching, aggressive, nervous, stumbling or showing other signs of brain damage; they also test some dead or unconscious animals, which are not supposed to be sold for food.
The beef industry argues that many animals that are falling down are merely lame. Its critics claim that some downed animals are passed by inspectors because they are just conscious enough to respond to a kick.
Tests in Japan have found the brain-wasting disease in animals that appear healthy.
Although neither Dr. DeHaven nor Dr. Engeljohn would say exactly what changes were contemplated, some food safety experts want changes like those made in Britain, including a ban on selling brains or vertebrae or meat attached to them, mandatory testing of all cattle over 30 months old, and a national ear-tagging system tracking each animal from birth to slaughter. Others want to outlaw giving herbivores any animal-based feed.
In some European countries, diseased carcasses are boiled down, dried into powder and then incinerated.
Dr. Engeljohn said the department might take measures like those Canada adopted after it found a mad cow case in May.
But other than slaughtering and testing the herds in Alberta that the animal came from, Canada did not take aggressive measures compared with those used in Europe and Japan.
Canada has tested only about 10,000 animals in the last decade, and has had a serious backlog of cases. Its one diseased cow was slaughtered in January and probably made into pet food. It was marked for testing because it was thin; pneumonia, not brain disease, was suspected. It was not tested until May.
"Compared to our neighbor to the north, we did pretty well," said Dr. John Maas, a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of California at Davis.
The Washington cow was tested within two weeks, but by then its muscle meat had become food for humans and its spinal cord was sent to a plant that makes food for pets, pigs and poultry. Its brain went to Ames, Iowa, and then to Britain for more testing.
Dr. DeHaven said the department's testing was "not to provide public safety," but to give officials 95 percent certainty that they would eventually detect the disease if it appeared in one animal in a million. There are about 100 million cattle in the United States.
The department has repeatedly called its test, an immunohistochemistry assay, "the gold standard."
But Michael Hansen, a Consumers Union researcher, said the test failed to detect mad cow disease in a 2-year-old bull in Japan this year, while a Western blot test, like those used in Europe, did.
Expanding testing would be "hugely expensive," Dr. DeHaven said. He estimated that it would cost $25 to $50 per animal tested, plus any costs of storing the meat until results were ready. Test makers say that works out to only pennies per pound.
The current system is "grossly inadequate," said Gene Bauston, the president of Farm Sanctuary, a farm-animal rights group in upstate New York. Mr. Bauston said he believed the lone cow found so far was "the tip of the iceberg."
"I think we've had the problem for a decade and it hasn't been detected till now," he said.
Farm Sanctuary obtained U.S.D.A. slaughterhouse records under the Freedom of Information Act, he said, and found that downers with hepatitis, lymphoma, gangrene and other ills had been passed by inspectors.
A spokesman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association defended the current testing but said it would back the introduction of rapid tests.
"In Europe, they needed to test more animals because they had the disease," said Dr. Gary Weber, the association's vice president for regulatory affairs.
American testing looks only at downers, and Dr. DeHaven said its goal was to test "as many animals as possible" with signs of brain damage.
But inspectors and slaughterhouse workers have said that they see near-dead animals dragged in by chains or forklifts, and inspectors complain that they are pressured to approve them.
Dr. Lester Friedlander, an Agriculture Department veterinarian from 1985 to 1995, said he worked in a huge Pennsylvania plant that specialized in turning old dairy cows into hamburger. It slaughtered 2,000 a day, including 30 to 35 downers, and could have as many as 1,200 cows waiting for him to see when it opened at 5:30 a.m.
Ideally, Dr. Friedlander could pick animals at random and watch them walk, looking for stumbling, facial paralysis, drooping ears and other signs of nerve damage, which can also be caused by rabies or cancer. Instead, he said, department rules let them be walked by in groups of six.
"I'm lucky if I see the second or third," he said. "The sixth? Forget about it."
He said that he rejected 25 to 30 cows a day worth about $500 each, and that when he stopped the production line, managers complained that he was costing them $5,000 a minute. Ultimately, he said, they complained to Washington, and he was transferred. He quit and has since sued the department over his transfer; it is fighting his suit.
The world's most popular tests for prions, the misfolded proteins that cause mad cow, are made by the Prionics AG of Schlieren, Switzerland. Its newest, a luminescence immunoassay, lets one worker screen 200 samples in three hours.
Tests use a small scoop of brain. Scientists are still seeking one for live cows. There is one for scrapies, a prion disease of sheep, Dr. Maas said. It requires cutting a piece of nerve from an inner eyelid.