Eyeball-to-eyeball with mad cow disease


How mad cow disease spread to Europe

And it seems the tragedy is not over. Mad cow disease has now spread to Germany and the other countries of Europe. How? Europeans fixated on the infected British cows, and ignored the disease agent. The disease initially spread in Britain because cows were fed protein-supplemented feed -meat and bone meal (MBM) prepared from animals infected with mad cow disease. But although there is a thriving international trade in MBM, nothing was done by Europe to restrict their exposure to meal prepared from cattle that had died of mad cow disease. The European Union has only this month imposed a six-month ban on MBM, extending its more limited ban on protein supplements.

What should we do to lessen the danger?

Mad cow disease and AIDS haunt the beginning of the 21st Century. The twin terrors of these epidemics are lethality (both are 100% fatal) and invisibility (both reveal no signs of disease until many years after infection). On balance, we have done well in fighting AIDS. Three of the lessons we have learned combating AIDS will serve us well as we now turn to face mad cow disease.

1. Devise a test for the disease agent. Early in the AIDS epidemic, investigators — led by Gallo of the NIH — developed tests for the presence of the AIDS-causing HIV virus. More than any other thing, the mad cow epidemic cries out for that sort of test. Without it, the only sure way to detect the presence of the disease is to sample brain tissue from dead animals. Animals that appear healthy cannot be tested to see if they harbor the disease-causing prion.

A few researchers like Gallo are reportedly at work trying to devise such a test. Our country cannot afford to sit around waiting. The federal government should immediately make the development of such a test a national research priority. Focusing many excellent minds on this key goal will increase the probability of a quick solution.

2. Focus on prevention. If we are to prevent mad cow disease from reaching our shores, it is important that we not make the same mistake that doomed Europe to today’s epidemic. Regulations should focus not only on cows, but also on the agent that gave them the disease. The prion proteins that cause mad cow disease are present primarily in nervous tissue. Because the skull and spine that make up a large portion of bone meal are easily contaminated with brain and spinal tissue during “rendering,” bone meal prepared from cattle is a real source of danger. Hence the danger of MBM.

As in Europe, regulations in the United States focused first on live cows. In 1989, as the mad cow epidemic surged in Britain, the United States banned imports of live cattle from Britain or other “mad cow” countries. Then, like Europe, we sat back and watched what happened in Britain. It was not until 1997 that the United States banned the supplementing of livestock feed with MBM prepared from cows — nine years after the same ban had been enacted in Britain.

3. Don’t wait to lock the barn door until after the horse is gone. The 1997 USDA regulations still allowed the importing of bone meal prepared from pigs and other animals raised on feed supplemented with cow MBM. This was tempting fate, as it is quite possible (even likely) that the prions that cause mad cow disease can pass from cow to pig and back. Only last December — less than two months ago — the USDA banned imports from Europe or other mad cow countries of all rendered animal protein products like MBM, whether from cattle, pigs, chickens, sheep, or any other animal.

Thus our comprehensive ban of the agents that transmit mad cow disease has been in place for less than two months. We are lucky indeed to have escaped, so far, the devastating outbreak of mad cow disease that imported MBM has brought to European countries. The 1,200 Texas cattle that were found to have been fed prohibited bone meal, quarantined last week, have proved to be clear of mad cow disease.

The Importance of Compliance

The lesson we need to learn is that no magic barrier keeps the disease out of The United States. What will keep it out is a stout barrier of regulation — rules and inspections to protect our cattle industry from importing animals or feed bearing the disease. Our current regulatory barrier is well-thought-out, if tardy. I have little doubt it can be effective.

However, a rule is only as effective as its enforcement. Disturbingly, recent checks have shown the barrier of regulations meant to protect us are often ignored. The Food and Drug Administration reported last month that a quarter of the 180 large American companies involved in manufacturing animal feed are not complying with regulations meant to prevent the spread of mad cow disease in this country.

This lack of compliance is scary. Marianne Elvander of the Swedish National Veterinary Institute is quoted by Reuters as saying “Negligent compliance with the meat and bone meal ban is the main reason for the spread of BSE in Europe.” FDA veterinary chief Dr. Stephen Sundlof issued a statement two weeks ago agreeing: Europe’s mad cow crisis “is not a result of them not having adequate regulations in place — it was a problem of enforcement.”

These FDA regulations are our only firewall against American mad cow disease. The FDA has warned that continued violations will prompt company shutdowns and prosecutions. Exactly right. I’d sleep better if the FDA immediately announced a plan to dramatically increase its surveillance of compliance with those regulations. They need more inspectors, if a quarter of the feed companies are not following the rules.

Should we stop eating meat, like many are doing in Europe? Not me. There is no evidence of a problem here now, only a nagging worry. If our government does its regulatory job, then I will be able to eat the steaks I love with no worry, and hamburgers too.

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