WASHINGTON, Dec. 30 (UPI) -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a series of sweeping changes in its mad cow surveillance and prevention programs Tuesday, some of which will take effect immediately.
"Today I am announcing steps we are taking to further protect our system," Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said during a news briefing. "In most instances, these actions are a result of work that was underway long before the discovery" of mad cows in Washington state last week and in Canada last May, Veneman said.
The changes include banning downer cattle from the human food supply and testing suspicious animals and holding them until test results are known. Beef from the cow that tested positive for mad cow disease on Dec. 23 in Mabton, Wash., was distributed for human consumption before the results had been returned.
In order to facilitate quick testing of the suspicious animals, the USDA also plans to implement so-called rapid tests, which the United Kingdom and several European countries began using after mad cow was detected in 180,000 cattle in Britain beginning in the 1980s.
"To have that kind of turnaround we would be going to one or potentially more of those (rapid) tests," said Ron DeHaven, USDA's chief veterinary officer.
DeHaven said the agency anticipates setting up a system where tissue samples from suspicious animals can be sent by overnight express mail to the USDA's testing lab in Ames, Iowa. Test results would be available "the afternoon or early evening the day after they were collected," he said.
The USDA previously had resisted calls from consumer advocates and other countries to move to the rapid test, saying the test it currently uses, which can take up to eight days to yield results, was "the gold standard."
Veneman said the agency planned to increase the number of animals it tests for mad cow and still would test downer cattle for the disease, perhaps at rendering plants. Downer and diseased cattle considered unfit for human consumption often are sent to rendering plants where they are processed into pet food, soap and other products.
The USDA also will ban certain parts older cows from human consumption, including the head, spinal column and small intestines because these tissues are considered at high risky of carrying prions, the protein fragments thought to cause mad cow disease and can infect humans with a deadly illness called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
The parts will not be allowed from cows older than 30 months because they are thought most likely to have the disease, which has an incubation period of three to six years. Canada took the same action after a cow tested positive for mad cow in Alberta last May.
Consumer groups offered a mixed reaction, both applauding the initiative but criticizing the USDA for not acting sooner.
"Today's announcement by USDA represents several leaps forward for consumers, but unfortunately USDA delayed these needed reforms too long to prevent the fallout from the first case of mad cow disease in the United States," said Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington.
DeWaal noted the ban on risky materials from animals older than 30 months will not necessarily protect consumers because mad cow disease has been detected in animals younger than 24 months of age.
The use of air injection stun guns to immobilize animals before slaughter also will be banned because they can introduce brain material into meat.
The USDA also plans to enact additional controls relating to processing by advanced meat recovery systems. These AMR machines, which mechanically strip meat from bones, can introduce bits of spinal cord and brains into ground beef, which increases the possibility of transmitting mad cow disease through meat.
Skulls no longer will be allowed to be used in AMR machines and meat processed by these systems will be tested to ensure it does not contain spinal cord or brain tissue, Veneman said. The regulations will become effective immediately after they are published in the Federal Register, which Veneman said will be as soon as possible.
The USDA also will to develop a system for tracing cattle in the United States to help it track down the origins of diseased cows.
The agency has had a difficult time tracking down the origin of the mad cow in Washington state. Initially, officials thought the animal was about 4 years old and they did not know where it was born. They now think it is 6.5 years old and originated in Canada.
The USDA has been working with state, federal and industry officials for a year and a half to develop a better cattle tracking system, but the details still are not fleshed out fully, Veneman said.
DeHaven said the system likely would involve electronic identification of and data storage for each cow to allow officials to track down a specific animal rapidly.
Steve Mitchell is UPI's Medical Correspondent. E-mail email@example.com