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CU comments to the USDA on whether the US should reopen the border with Canada for cattle and beef

Comments of Consumers Union on Docket No. 03-080-2 “Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy; Minimal Risk Regions and Importation of Commodities
April 7, 2004

Consumers Union(1) , publisher of Consumer Reports, urges the US Department of Agriculture not to amend its regulations to create a new category of regions that present a minimal risk of introducing BSE into the Unites States via live ruminants and ruminant products, as described in the Federal Register of November 4, 2003. USDA’s proposed criteria for deciding whether a country would fall into the minimal risk category are vague and ill defined. They do not offer sufficiently strong protections so that US consumers can be confident about the safety of all beef offered for sale in the United States.
If BSE is found in a country, the United States should not even consider accepting imports of live ruminants and ruminant products from that country unless that country is testing all cattle over the age of 20 months at slaughter, has instituted a full ban on feeding of mammal protein to food animals for at least eight years, and has a thorough enforcement program with widespread inspections to insure compliance with the feed ban. The USDA may also impose other restrictions on imports to insure safety, particularly in regard to countries that are exhibit significant numbers of BSE-positive cattle.
The vague and general measures that USDA proposes to use to define a minimal risk region would leave US consumers, and the US cattle herd, excessively vulnerable to the risk of importation of BSE-infected cattle or beef. We are particularly concerned that under this proposal, the USDA would allow imports from countries that do have BSE cases but have low levels of surveillance and testing. The proposal would allow imports from countries that are doing less to prevent BSE than the United States. We urge USDA not to adopt this proposed rule.
CU is particularly concerned with the following items in the definition of “BSE minimal risk region.”
Mitigation measures
Item 1 in the definition discusses “mitigation measures adequate to prevent widespread exposure and/or establishment of the disease.” One of the mitigation measures discussed is surveillance:
1.b Surveillance for BSE at levels that meet or exceed OIE recommendations for surveillance for BSE.
USDA states that Canada meets this surveillance criterion. However, the level of surveillance in Canada is far less than the proposed level of surveillance in the U.S. As pointed out in the USDA’s “Explanatory note,” Canada plans to test approximately 8,000 cattle in 2004. Given that Canada’s herd size of about 13 million (1999 figures), this represents plans to test less than .062 percent of the Canadian herd. The U.S., on the other hand, has proposed testing at least 200,000 cattle. Given the U.S. herd size in 2002 of 96.1 million (see http://agriculture.about.com/cs/beefcattle/a/032203.htm), this represents plans to test at least .21 percent of the U.S. herd. Thus, the U.S.’ proposed surveillance rate will be at least 3.5 times larger than Canada’s. CU believes that the U.S. should not accept beef from a country that has BSE surveillance rates less than that of the U.S. In fact, CU believes that, for countries where BSE has occurred, U.S. should require that all cattle above the age of 20 months should be tested before before permitting entry of meat from such countries. Countries.
A second mitigation measure discussed is a feed ban:
1.c A ban on the feeding of ruminant protein to ruminants that appears to be an effective barrier to the dissemination of the BSE infectious agent, with no evidence of significant noncompliance with the ban.
The language in 1c is unacceptably vague. What is meant by stating that a feed ban “appears to be an effective barrier to the dissemination of the BSE infectious agent”? The wording “appears to be an effective barrier” is too vague and leaves the door open to much subjective thinking. A feed ban either is or is not an effective barrier. We believe that “appears to be an effective barrier” should mean at least be equal to the U.S. regulations, not less. We note that the Canadian feed ban is not as stringent as the U.S.
USDA maintains that “Canada has maintained an effective ban on feeding mammalian protein to ruminants, with requirements similar to the feed ban in place in the United States, since 1997.” However, in response to the December 23 announcement of a case of BSE in the US, FDA announced at the end of January that they were tightening the feed ban by removing a number of exemptions. In particular, FDA stated their intention to end the exemption on the use of cattle blood in cattle feed; in fact, FDA stated their intention to ban of the use of mammalian bloods in any food for ruminants. It should be noted that a number of studies in the scientific literature have found that blood from BSE-infected sheep can transmit BSE to other sheep (Hunter et al. 2002), thus showing that blood contains the infectious agent. In fact, CU believes that any country that wants to export cattle or beef to the U.S. should have banned use of all mammalian protein to all food animals, as in the European Union or Japan.
The language “with no evidence of significant non-compliance with the ban” is also unacceptably vague. This language opens the door to cases where a country with no or minimal compliance monitoring could pass this criterion because there was “no evidence of non-compliance.” We note that the absence of evidence of non-compliance is not evidence of compliance. We also believe that any feed ban should be enforced with an inspection program including sampling and testing of feed, as recommended by the Secretary’s Foreign Animal and Poultry Disease Advisory Committee’s Subcommittee on U.S.’ Response to the Detection of a Case of BSE (see pg. 9 of the Subcommittee’s report).
Epidemiological investigation
Item 2 refers to epidemiological investigation:
2. In a region in which BSE has been detected, the region conducted an epidemiological investigation following detection of BSE sufficient to confirm the adequacy of measures to prevent the further introduction or spread of BSE, and continues to take such measures.
The USDA statement focuses on the conduct an epidemiological investigation and seems unconcerned about whether definitive findings result from such an investigation. The USDA calls for “an investigation to determine the most likely source of the animal’s exposure to BSE.” The “most likely source of the animal’s exposure to BSE” is not a definitive finding.
Additional risk mitigation measures
Item 3 refers to additional risk mitigation measures:
3. In a region in which BSE has been detected, the region took additional risk mitigation measures, as necessary, following the BSE outbreak based on risk analysis of the outbreak, and continues to take such measures.
The language of this item is too vague. As the USDA notes, such a risk analysis should “distinguish between those regions that thoroughly analyze their situation and address any problems from those that do not take mitigation measures and thus prolong possible exposure to BSE . . . additional risk mitigation measures could include a broad eradication program, increased surveillance, or additional import restrictions.” Since the mitigation measures “could” include these other items, they also could not include them.
Hunter, N., Foster, J., Chong, A., McCutcheon, S., Parnham, D., Eaton, S., Mackenzie, C. and F. Houston. 2002. Transmission of prion diseases by blood transfusion. Journal of General Virology (83): 2897-2905.
(1) Consumers Union is a nonprofit membership organization chartered in 1936 under the laws of the State of New York to provide consumers with information, education and counsel about goods, services, health, and personal finances; and to initiate and cooperate with individual and group efforts to maintain and enhance the quality of life for consumers. Consumers Union’s income is derived solely from the sale of Consumer Reports, its other publications and from noncommercial contributions, grants and fees. In addition to reports on Consumers Union’s own product testing, Consumer Reports, with approximately 4.5 million paid circulation, regularly carries articles on health, product safety, marketplace economics and legislative, judicial and regulatory actions which affect consumer welfare. Consumers Union’s publications carry no advertising and receive no commercial support.