US ponders overhauling beef rules

Mad-cow case could lead to most important meat industry changes in a century.

The investigation into the lineage of a Holstein diagnosed with mad-cow disease could bring about the greatest changes in the US meat industry since Upton Sinclair's muckraking novel "The Jungle" led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration nearly a century ago.

In the wake of the discovery of the diseased animal, statements from Capitol Hill, the Department of Agriculture, and scientific and industry experts point to a spate of new regulations that could appear over the next year.

Government oversight of the vast system of feedlots and slaughterhouses around the country, say experts, are likely to resemble the European model: a ban on the human consumption of "downer" cattle (those so sick or injured that they cannot stand), a detailed cattle-tracking system, and new restrictions on grinding up cattle parts as feed for other animals.

Also being scrutinized are nonfood products derived from cow parts - everything from bone meal spread on flower gardens to hand cream and antifreeze.

Federal officials continue to stress that there is very little likelihood the fatal nervous-system disease traced to a cow in Washington State will be passed along to consumers. Experts say the chances that the disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE) will spread to other herds is very low as well.

"The import of one sick animal yields on average less than one new BSE case in 20 years and the disease is likely to be quickly eliminated from the US following its introduction," stated a report from the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis.

Still, such assurances are not ironclad. "It's too early to say what the full extent of the outbreak will be," says Brian Halweil, senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington.

Of the approximately 35 million cattle slaughtered in the US each year, as many as 360,000 are killed because they have become "downers" through injury or disease. Animal-rights activists say they are mistreated during the shipping process and present a risk to food safety.

According to the USDA, downed animals "represent a significant pathway for spread of disease if they are not handled or disposed of with appropriate safeguards." Several states now ban or restrict the use of those animals as meat sources, and the USDA no longer uses such meat in school lunch programs.

"If that policy should be observed in feeding children at schools, it should be observed for feeding children and adults in domestic and commercial settings, too," says Wayne Pacelle, senior vice president of the Humane Society of the United States.

It is clear that public concern was growing even before the recent discovery. In September, a Zogby poll showed that 77 percent of Americans opposed the use of downed animals for human food.

There now are more than 100 members of Congress pushing a bipartisan bill that would ban the human consumption of such cattle. The measure passed in the Senate as an amendment to the agriculture appropriations bill, but lost in the House earlier this month by just three votes. That was before the current mad-cow episode, however, which has increased chances for passage.

Tougher regulations tracking the lives of cattle before they are killed are also likely to result. Authorities still are not sure whether the cow in question was four years old or more than six years old, in which case the likelihood increases that it ate contaminated feed with cow parts.

"The best way to tell if a piece of meat is potentially contaminated is to know where it's been," says Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, author of a bill that would require a coded system for tracking every head of cattle from slaughter to retail sale.

Evidence showing that the infected cow originated in the Canadian province of Alberta., the same site of North America's first mad-cow discovery this spring, has boosted calls for greater scrutiny of the path taken by Canadian cattle. Last year, the US imported from Canada more than one million head of cattle.

"This bill will require meat manufacturers to make that information crystal clear," says Senator Schumer. "The bottom line is meat safety and inspection needs to be dramatically improved."

Now, the US relies on cattlemen's records, rather than scientific samples, to ensure that they are not using feed that includes banned cow waste, like brain and spinal-chord tissue. These parts carry a higher likelihood of transmitting the disease.

Many in Congress have begun calling for tighter inspections of these feeding practices, as well as of the slaughtered cattle themselves. The USDA currently tests only a tiny fraction of cattle slaughtered each year, about one of every 1,700, which is far less than in Europe and Japan.

"We should be testing for BSE at the same level as Europe and Japan, which means 90 to 100 percent of our herd," says Mr. Halweil.

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