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Study Finds Low U.S. Risk of Mad Cow Disease
By Cat Lazaroff
WASHINGTON, DC, December 3, 2001 (ENS) - The risk of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, sometimes called mad cow disease, occurring in the United States is extremely low, according to a landmark study by Harvard University released last week. Taking no chances, several federal agencies are now taking steps to increase their ability to keep the disease out of the nation.
"Based on three years of thorough study, we are firmly confident that [bovine spongiform encephalopathy] will not become an animal or public health problem in America," said Dr. George Gray, deputy director of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis and director of the project.
Cows may develop Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, if they are given feed containing tissues from infected animals (Photo by Brian Prechtel courtesy USDA)
Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) is a chronic, degenerative neurological disorder of cattle that belongs to a family of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. Also included in that family of illnesses is the deadly human form of the disease, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), believed to be caused by eating the neural tissues, such as brain and spinal cord, from BSE affected cattle.
BSE has never been detected in U.S. cattle, nor has there been a case of vCJD detected in the United States.
Since 1989, the USDA has banned the import of live ruminants, such as cattle, sheep and goats, and most ruminant products from the United Kingdom and other countries where BSE outbreaks have occurred. The ban was extended to Europe in 1997.
To stop the way the disease is thought to spread, the U.S. government has also prohibited the use of most mammalian protein in the manufacture of animal feed intended for cows and other ruminants.
"Our analysis found the key is compliance with the FDA's feed ban," said Gray. "Keeping the parts of animals that are potentially infectious from getting from a healthy-sick animal to a healthy one is the key."
Other animals may also be able spread forms of BSE (Photo courtesy U.S. Agricultural Research Service)
The Harvard study, released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), indicates that early protection systems put into place by the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have been largely responsible for keeping BSE out of the U.S., and should prevent it from spreading if it ever did enter the country.
The risk assessment study, commissioned by USDA and conducted by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, evaluates the ways in which BSE could spread if it were to ever enter the United States. The report's purpose is to give agencies a scientific analysis to evaluate preventative measures already in place and identify additional actions that should be taken to minimize the risk of BSE.
"The study released today clearly shows that the years of early actions taken by the federal government to safeguard consumers have helped keep BSE from entering the United States," said Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman. "Even if BSE were to ever be introduced, it would be contained according to the study."
"However, we cannot let down our guard or reduce our vigilance," Veneman cautioned. "We must continue to strengthen these critical programs and today we are announcing a series of actions to bolster our protection systems."
Validating tests for mad cow disease at a lab in Geel, Belgium (Photo courtesy EU Joint Research Center)
Veneman said the USDA plans to more than double the number of BSE tests it will conduct this fiscal year, with more than 12,500 cattle samples targeted in 2002 - up from 5,000 during 2001.
The USDA will also consider additional regulations that could reduce the potential risk of exposure and ensure that potentially infectious materials stay out of the U.S food supply, Veneman said. The options to be considered will include:
prohibiting the use of brain and spinal cord from specified categories of animals in human food;
prohibiting the use of central nervous system tissue in boneless beef products, including meat from advanced meat recovery (AMR) systems; and
prohibiting the use of vertebral column from certain categories of cattle, including downed animals, in the production of meat from advanced meat recovery systems.
The USDA will consider new rules to govern the disposal of dead stock on farms and ranches. Such cattle are considered an important potential pathway for the spread of BSE in the animal chain.
"We found that even if BSE were ever introduced, it would not become established," said Gray. "With the government programs already in place, even accounting for imperfect compliance, the disease in the cattle herd would quickly die out, and the potential for people to be exposed to infected cattle parts that could transmit the disease is very low."
But Gray noted that no one can guarantee that U.S. residents will remain safe from mad cow disease.
"Can we say that there won't be a case of BSE in the United States? No. We can't say that. We can't say that there might not be a case of variant CJD in the United States, even when it can't be traced back to the United Kingdom or to Europe," said Gray.
"But what we can say, even in the absence of zero risk," Gray continued, is that "after three years of study is we're confident that BSE is not going to become a major public health or animal health threat for the United States."
To reduce the risk even further, Congress has earmarked $15 million in the fiscal year 2002 budget for the Food and Drug Administration to protect consumers against Creutzfeldt- Jakob Disease. The funding is designed to ensure the strengthening of and compliance with FDA guidelines and rules to help prevent the spread of BSE and vCJD through products such as drugs, biologics, medical devices, pet foods, food additives, and dietary supplements.
This summer, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson announced an action plan outlining new steps to improve scientific understanding of BSE that incorporates a comprehensive approach to further strengthen surveillance, increase research resources and expand existing inspection efforts. For more information about BSE and the many efforts being taken to prevent its entry and spread into the United States, visit: http://www.usda.gov/ or: http://www.hhs.gov/
A complete copy of the Harvard Report can be obtained from the USDA website at: http://www.usda.gov/
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