UN, U.S. Officials Try to Calm Mad Cow Fears

ROME, Italy, February 7, 2005 (ENS) - Four cases of mad cow disease in cattle in Canada and the United States and a single confirmed case in a goat in France should not cause panic among consumers and producers, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said today.

"The three cases in Canada and the one case in the U.S. from an imported animal are isolated incidents," FAO animal production expert Andrew Speedy said in a statement.

Formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), the central nervous system disease is fatal in adult cattle and was first diagnosed in cattle in 1986 in the United Kingdom.

Scientists believe it causes variant Creutzfeldt - Jakob disease (vCJD) in humans through consumption of contaminated beef products from infected cattle.

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Ground beef becomes a common summer meal, hamburgers on the barbeque. (Photo courtesy FreeFoto)
Monthly figures released today by the British National Department of Health show that vCJD resulted in 148 deaths in the last 10 years. A recent case in Japan involved the death of a man who had visited the UK.

Some consumer groups believe that the human form of mad cow disease could be killing many more people than statistics show. Michael Greger, M.D., writing today for the Organic Consumers Association, said, "We don't know exactly what's happening to the rate of CJD in this country, in part because CJD is not an officially notifiable illness. Currently only a few states have such a requirement."

The FAO said that these latest cattle cases were detected because of the testing procedures now in place. More than 176,000 tests out of a total cattle population of almost 95 million were carried out in the United States and more than 21,000 out of 14.5 million cattle in Canada during 2004.

Transmission is thought to be by oral ingestion of animal feed containing BSE infected meat and bone meal. A ban on feeding such matter has been in place in both countries since 1997.

The new U.S. Agriculture Secretary Michael Johanns is adopting a similar position. Testifying February 3 before the Senate Agriculture Committee on the effects mad cow disease, on U.S. imports and exports of cattle and beef, Johanns said Canada has in place the two major "firewalls" necessary to prevent the occurrence of BSE and its spread to the United States.

Those safeguards are a ban on specified risk materials (SRMs) - bovine tissues known to be at high risk for carrying the agent of BSE - from entering the food supply and a ban on ruminant material in cattle feed, he said. He pointed out that ruminant feed bans of such materials have been in effect in both the United States and Canada since 1997.

These two measures, combined with U.S. domestic safeguards, provide protections to U.S. consumer and livestock health and justify a U.S. decision to allow resumption in March 7 of imports of live cattle younger than 30 months from Canada into the United States, Johanns said.

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Cows that eat grass are not the problem. Only cows that eat manufactured feed which may contain parts of BSE infected animals can get mad cow disease. (Photo courtesy FreeFoto)
The rule adopted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in December 2004 classifying Canada as a "minimal risk" country for BSE transmission is based on a review of international science standards set by the World Organization for Animal Health, the secretary said.

The USDA rule also is based on reports from a team of U.S. animal and food safety scientists sent to Canada after a second and third case of BSE were discovered in the country in January in cows older than 30 months, Johanns said.

The secretary said he will continue to look at information being sent back to the USDA from the technical team still in Canada. The team is expected to submit a final report on Canada's feed ban in mid-February and an epidemiological report by the end of March, he said.

The ban on live cattle imports from Canada went into effect after the country discovered its first case of BSE in May 2003.

Johanns said that since USDA implemented an expanded BSE testing program in early 2004, more than 200,000 head of cattle have been tested at slaughter and all test results have been negative.

U.S. actions on BSE using science as a basis "are potentially precedent-setting and could affect international trade patterns for years to come," Johanns said.

"In the absence of that science, sanitary and phytosanitary restrictions will be used arbitrarily by many nations, without any basis of protecting human or animal health," he said.

But a U.S. cattle producers' group that has filed suit against the USDA to block removal of the ban on Canadian beef imports says the agency is only adopting "part" of the scientific standards recommended by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE).

Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America (R-CALF USA) said Friday, "USDA only includes some high-risk tissues in its SRM removal plan - fewer tissues than included in the standard risk-reduction practices in the UK and the EU."

"USDA’s Final Rule does not begin removal of SRMs at the age where OIE, the UK, and the EU consider it necessary. USDA’s Final Rule requires SRM removal only from cattle over 30 months of age, while European countries require removal of SRMs in all cattle over 12 months of age. OIE recommends SRM removal from cattle over six months of age for countries with the same disease characteristics as Canada."

CEO of R-CALF Bill Bullard said, "The BSE standards being incorporated by USDA are inferior to international standards established by OIE, and far below the science-based practices of countries that have successfully reduced the incidence of BSE."

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Cows consuming manufactured feed from which all specified risk materials are supposed to be eliminated. (Photo courtesy USDA)
"Canada does not meet the definition of a minimal-risk country, based on international guidelines, and this is why 33 countries still ban Canadian beef. It’s not clear why USDA should force U.S. consumers to be exposed to risks that other countries protect their citizens from," said Bullard.

Under OIE guidelines, "Canada is a moderate-risk BSE country," Bullard said, rather than a minimal risk country as the USDA rule states.

Still, Johanns is determined to permit Canadian beef to enter the United States, and he is pressing other countries to reopen their borders to U.S. beef.

The secretary said he recently wrote to his counterpart in Japan about Japan's continuing ban on some U.S. beef imports despite the United States' having answered all of that country's technical questions about the safety of the U.S. food system.

In October 2004, Japan agreed to an interim program to allow imports of U.S. beef from cows younger than 20 months. Japan imposed its ban on U.S. beef following the discovery of a sole case of BSE in the United States in December 2003.

Before the ban, Japan imported $1.5 billion of U.S. beef products annually, Johanns said.

The United States is also in discussions with Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, Egypt and Russia about their resumption of U.S. beef imports, he said.

U.S. actions on BSE, "are potentially precedent-setting and could affect international trade patterns for years to come," Johanns said.

The FAO recommended a "steady, scientific approach to ensure that the disease is kept out of unaffected countries." The UN agency suggests that "essential" measures include identification of animals by use of ear tags or electronic systems, national registration and movement records, and compulsory testing of suspect animals.

The agency is working with Swiss experts to train veterinary staff in other countries, including Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Near East, in methods of diagnosis, surveillance and prevention.

Essential control measures also include the exclusion of potentially infective materials from the feed chain and improved practices in the rendering and feed industries.

The goat diagnosed with BSE in France on January 28 was the first food animal other than cattle to contract the disease naturally. It was thought that sheep and goats were only affected by scrapie which is distinguishable from BSE and not thought to be transmissible to humans.

The EU member states last week decided to step up testing for BSE in the European goat population. The testing was proposed by the European Commission to determine if this BSE case represents an isolated incident or if further measures need to be taken.

Markos Kyprianou, EU Commissioner responsible for Health and Consumer Protection, said, "Our priority is to safeguard the health of Europe’s citizens and I therefore want to act quickly to determine the significance of this case. That is why we are significantly stepping up the level of testing. We will monitor the situation closely and review all the data and scientific advice again in six months."

The FAO stressed that this was one example in millions, and the goat was born before Europe imposed a total ban on feeding potentially infected meat and bone meal to livestock in January 2001.

But for many people fears arise because of what is not known. "The incubation period for human spongiform encephalopathies such as CJD can be decades," writes Greger. "This means it can be years between eating infected meat and getting diagnosed with the death sentence of CJD. Although only about 150 people have so far been diagnosed with variant CJD worldwide, it will be many years before the final death toll is known."