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Food chain scoured

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | February 5, 2001

Of all the current concerns related to mad cow disease, the issue of contaminated feed looms the largest, so large that the U.S. Food and

Drug Administration (FDA) banned feeding cattle any meal -- imported or domestic -- that contains the rendered byproducts of mammals.

Even though mad cow disease contamination has not been found in the U.S. -- in cows or feed -- the FDA is intensifying enforcement of the


A recent FDA report found that hundreds of feed makers were violating labeling requirements and other rules associated with the ban. The

agency has warned feed makers that continued violations would prompt seizures of feed, company closures, and prosecution.

In January, the FDA turned warning into reality when 1,222 cattle in Texas were held in isolation because they may have eaten feed containing U.S. cattle byproducts. This represents what many see as the FDA's first real crackdown on violations of those rules.

The U.S. is implementing such preventative measures before many other countries. In Italy, food inspectors searching for mad cow are

turning up other food safety violations in two-thirds of their visits. In Germany, officials announced they are going to slaughter and then

test for mad cow disease 400,000 cattle -- the most dramatic step since Germany's first case was discovered in November.

The U.S. -- by checking and enforcing existing laws designed to prevent mad cow -- hopes to avoid the onset of the disease altogether, or at

least minimize its effects.

A farmer, veterinarian, or government inspector would likely notice odd behavior that doesn't respond to conventional treatments if mad

cow disease had entered this country. Cattle with the disease become uncoordinated, excessively nervous or aggressive, and lose weight

despite a normal appetite. After the suspected cow died or was killed, tests would be run on its brain tissues.

Samples would go to the Department Agriculture Labs in Ames, IA. If protein markers for the disease appeared, a panel of pathologists

would examine the test results. Then the brain tissue samples would be hand-carried by a pathologist to the Central Veterinary Laboratory

in England.

Then the brain tissue samples would be treated with formic acid (so they wouldn't be contagious) and hand-carried by a pathologist to the

Central Veterinary Laboratory in England. The testing process there would take from one to four days.

Agriculture Department staffers, meanwhile, would deploy to an emergency center, that is still being built somewhere close to the

department's Washington, DC headquarters.

Meanwhile, in the state where the suspect cow lived, agriculture officials would trace the animal's genealogy and put the rest of the herd in quarantine. In tandem, the FDA would trace the animal's feed to determine if had been infected and what other animals might have received it - the same procedures the FDA would take if any other disease was discovered in the food chain.

If the disease came to light after the cow had entered the food chain, then the FDA would try to figure out how much of the cow's meat and

other byproducts, like tissue and fats, had been shipped out and to where.

U.S. officials seem confident they can keep mad cow disease out of the food chain.

All of this would take place in coordination with the cattle industry, said Harrison. "We would contain, isolate, and eradicate," she said.

"As producers we can't afford that devastating of an animal disease. If anybody wants to know if we have it, it's cattle producers."

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