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Experts Insist U.S. Meat Supply Safe

Others say more mad cow precautions needed

MONDAY, Dec. 29, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Even though meat linked to one sick cow now has been placed in eight Western states and the territory of Guam, experts maintain the nation's food supply is safe from mad cow disease.

"It really doesn't impact the question of food safety right now," says David Lineback, director of the Joint Institute of Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the University of Maryland in College Park. "It doesn't change it."

"The key premise is that the meat itself is a safe commodity because the infective protein does not accumulate in muscle tissue or milk. The fact that the brain and the spinal cord of this particular animal [were] removed before processing are very good safeguards," adds Alfonse Torres, executive director of the New York State Animal Health Diagnostic Laboratory and associate dean of veterinary public policy at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine. "Even if we assume that there is some degree of material in that meat, the risk is so low that it should not be a concern for the eventual consumer of that beef."

Torres was formerly the deputy administrator for veterinary services for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. In that capacity, he would have been making all the decisions regarding mad cow, known formally as bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

The USDA announced last Tuesday that a Holstein cow slaughtered in Washington state on Dec. 9 was the nation's first case of mad cow disease. The slaughterhouse that processed the diseased cow's carcass, along with 19 others, has recalled all 10,410 pounds of raw beef it sent out that day, according to the USDA. Meat from the infected animal went to California, Nevada, Oregon, Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana and Guam, as well as Washington state.

A 2001 risk assessment commissioned by the USDA and conducted by Harvard University concluded that, even in a worst-case scenario, the risk to the U.S. food supply would be minimal. Furthermore, Torres says, some additional safeguards recommended by the study have since been put into place.

Which begs the question, how good are the safeguards already in place?

"We have the regulations in place to greatly improve the food supply, [but] you can never ensure absolute safety," Lineback says. "You can argue whether we have all we need, but we have a good set. You're always going to have a small percentage that violate those."

USDA officials have acknowledged that European and Japanese regulators screen millions of animals using tests that take only three hours, which is fast enough to stop diseased carcasses from being cut up for food. U.S. inspectors have tested fewer than 30,000 of the 300 million animals slaughtered in the last nine years, and they get results days or weeks later.

With the threat of lawsuits looming ever large over their slaughterhouses, most companies are making an effort to toe the line, Lineback adds. "It's in their interest to have as safe a food product as they can."

Even if some infected material did slip through, the danger to consumers would be tiny. "If you have one cow in all that meat, you've really diluted it a great deal. The more you dilute it, the less likely it is to be dangerous," Lineback says. "The dose makes the poison."

"The best telling data is what happened in the U.K.," Torres adds. "There were more than 180,000 cases over the years in cows. Back in 1986, provisions not to remove some of the contaminated tissue were not in place, so a lot of people early on were exposed. Even with all that, there were only 143 human cases. Apparently you need to eat a lot of brain material, and there may be some sort of genetic predisposition."

Arguably, the average consumer faces a greater risk of dying from salmonella, E. coli, or hepatitis from eating scallions at a popular Mexican restaurant.

Nevertheless, there have been calls for tougher regulations. Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, has urged the USDA to beef up its protection of the human food supply. In particular, DeWaal wants the government to ban spinal columns and neck bones from the human food supply.

Other public officials, including U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), have called for tougher laws and a national tracking system. Having such a system would have helped determine the origin of the sick cow from Washington state. As of now, U.S. authorities say the cow was born in Canada, while Canadian officials say it is too soon to tell because of conflicting records on the animal. More importantly, the New York Times has reported the cow was born four months before either country began banning brain and spinal cord tissue from cattle feed to stem any possible spread of the disease among herds.

The idea of a tracking system has been around for a while, Torres says, but has met with "resistance from industry and private citizens." One issue is who would maintain the database, given that the government has said it doesn't want to, Torres adds.

More information

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has current updates on BSE. You can also try the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

SOURCES: David Lineback, Ph.D., director, Joint Institute of Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, University of Maryland, College Park; Alfonso Torres, D.V.M., Ph.D., executive director, New York State Animal Health Diagnostic Laboratory, and associate dean, veterinary public policy, College of Veterinary Medicine, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.; Center for Science in the Public Interest statement
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