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USDA Proposals on Mad Cow Disease Don’t Go Far Enough


Consumers Union, independent nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, criticized the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) new proposals today to prevent the spread of mad cow disease as inadequate to protect public health. “These are positive steps, but they simply don’t go far enough,” stated Michael Hansen, Ph.D., Senior Research Associate at Consumers Union. “USDA Secretary Ann Veneman today failed to make any promises about increasing the testing of US cattle for mad cow disease.”
Consumers Union urges USDA to require testing of all animals at slaughter, as they do in Japan. The United States slaughters some 35 million head of cattle a year. Testing them would raise the price of beef by only a few cents a pound.
Consumers Union also criticized USDA for failing to approve the quick tests that are in use in Europe and Japan. “USDA is using an old-fashioned and very slow method to test for mad cow disease. Europe and Japan are using test methods that provide results within hours—not a couple of weeks as in the United States,” Hansen states. One of the quick test methods approved for use in Europe but not the United States was developed by Nobel prizewinner Stanley Prusiner, who lives and works in California. Hansen states, “We’re glad USDA will hold back any animals that are being tested until the results are in, so a positive animal will not enter the food supply. But it would be much better if they used the quick tests, so you know the results immediately.”
Consumers Union agreed that it was a positive and significant step that USDA will no longer allow downer cows in the human supply. But not all cows with mad cow disease are sick enough to fall down and be classified as “downers,” so wider testing is still needed. Testing in other countries has shown that some animals that appear healthy are actually infected. In addition, some cows that do collapse may have broken bones or other health problems.
Consumers Union praised USDA’s decision to require an identification system for cattle so that they can be traced from birth to the slaughterhouse. Consumers Union also supports USDA’s decision to ban mechanically separated meat, which can contain nerve tissue from the spinal column, and to ban brains from cows more than 30 months old for human consumption. Hansen states, “All these steps will improve meat safety.”
“The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must also take action on this issue, to protect public health,” says Hansen. “FDA should ban the feeding of all rendered animal remains to food animals,” he states. Consumers Union is concerned that rendered cattle remains can be fed to swine and chickens, and that rendered swine and chicken remains can in turn be fed back to cattle. “This opens the door for mad cow disease to circulate among our food animals,” says Hansen.
To interview an expert call:

  • Jean Halloran, Director, Consumers Union Consumer Policy Institute, at 914-378-2457 (w) or 718-625-2428 (h)

  • Michael Hansen, Ph.D., Senior Research Associate, Consumers Union Consumer Policy Institute, at 914-378-2452 (w) or 917-774-3801 (cell).