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After mad-cow find, concern with prevention

While admitting danger to food supply is low, critics say US can do more to safeguard US beef.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 26, 2003


This week, the United States' elaborate wall of rules and regulations designed to keep mad-cow disease out of the country showed its first cracks.

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For more than a decade, the American system of detection has helped prevent the illness from spreading to the country's farms and ranch lands. The announcement Tuesday of the first detection of mad-cow disease in US history, however, has raised questions and concerns about how effective the American regimen really is.

To critics, the discovery is a confirmation of the need to adopt the more rigorous standards of Europe and Japan. To proponents, it is evidence that the system is working precisely as it should.

Still, even supporters acknowledge that, in a world skittish about mad-cow disease, the discovery of a single case could prompt major reforms, as the American beef industry seeks to avoid an economic disaster by assuring customers both at home and abroad that US beef is safe.

"The international stakes in this are very high," says Dean Cliver, a professor at the University of California's School of Veterinary Medicine in Davis. "[More] testing will [probably] be implemented because we won't be able to export without it."

A single case of mad-cow disease in Canada this spring devastated its beef industry. Canada's beef was subject to worldwide embargoes - many of which have yet to be lifted.

The US exports a comparatively smaller percentage of its beef - about 10 percent. But because the cattle industry represents the largest segment of American agriculture, generating $50 billion in sales among US consumers alone, the fallout to US agriculture will undoubtedly be significant. Several nations, including South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan - the largest overseas market for US beef - have halted US beef imports.

Among some scientists, it seems a reaction wildly out of step with the dangers of the disease. Since bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) - the scientific name for mad-cow disease - was first diagnosed in Britain in 1986, some 130 people have died from eating tainted beef products.

"It's a little hard to comprehend" all the fear surrounding BSE, says Clive Gay, a professor of veterinary medicine at Washington State University in Pullman. "If you look at the number of deaths relative to the exposure, the risk of it is very low."

Part of the reason for that is because of the way mad-cow disease is transmitted - solely by eating specific parts of cows that are infected. Scientific studies suggest that muscle tissue, from which supermarket meat cuts come, does not transmit BSE. The disease is usually transmitted through parts of the brain or nervous system. Scientists posit that human deaths, all in Europe, have come from eating tainted sausages.

Likewise, cows became infected by eating feed made from the leftover portions of slaughtered cows. To ensure this would not happen in the United States, the federal government banned the use of cow parts in cow feed in 1997. In recent years, it has also bolstered its detection program, testing nearly 20,000 cattle in 2002 - roughly four times more than it tested in 2001.