July 26, 2006

Safeguards Vastly Cut BSE Risk to People

By Christopher Doering

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government virtually eliminated the threat of mad cow disease to consumers by requiring the removal of brains, spinal cords and other high risk items from older cattle, the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis said on Tuesday.

Two consumer groups applauded the progress but said the Agriculture Department was unwilling to take the more stringent steps suggested by an international advisory panel, such as banning high-risk materials from cattle 12 months or older from food and feed use.

Mad cow disease is a fatal, brain-wasting disease believed to be spread by contaminated feed. People can contract a human version of the disease by eating tainted meats. With only three cases of mad cow found in the country, USDA says the risk of mad cow is very low.

"Removing high risk tissues, often called specified risk materials or SRMs, from animals over 30 months of age almost completely eliminates potential human exposure," the center said in an update to its 2003 study, commissioned by USDA.

Consumer activists said the government could do more, such as setting a lower age level for SRM removal.

"USDA hasn't followed the most proactive approach," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety with the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "We've got a ways to go."

She said in addition to expanding the SRM ban, USDA must implement a nationwide traceback system to find herdmates of suspect livestock when there is a disease outbreak.

Added Mike Hansen, a spokesman with Consumers Union: "It does appear that the model is basically designed to tell the USDA what it wants to hear ... that doing anything more stringent doesn't get you any further."

In its report, the center said two other USDA measures - banning "downer" cattle too ill to walk and the use of so-called advanced meat recovery equipment - also were helpful but to a lesser degree than SRM removal.

"SRM removal is it, but there are some other things that increase, that help," Richard Raymond, USDA under secretary for food safety, told reporters. "The banning of the downer cattle is one of the things that helps reduce the risk," he added.

USDA quickly moved to ban meat from downer animals in the human food supply soon after the United States discovered its first case of mad cow disease in Washington state in December 2003. The rule was temporary, but Raymond said USDA was working on a final proposal.

The removal of downer cattle reduced human exposure to mad cow disease by about 3 percent, the study found.

The Harvard study also evaluated two steps suggested for upcoming revisions to the Food and Drug Administration's feed rule - a ban on use of cattle blood and barring feed mills from using the same equipment to make feed containing the high-risk materials and feed without them. It found neither would have a major impact on the spread of mad cow.

(Additional reporting by Charles Abbott)