WASHINGTON, March 16 (UPI) -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to increase its testing for mad cow disease tenfold, but consumer advocates argued Tuesday the strategy is wrought with loopholes and still is not adequate to safeguard the public.
USDA's plan, which aims to test as many high-risk animals as possible over a 12-18 month period, could involve screening more than 200,000 cows, including some 20,000 healthy, older animals. Although agency officials stressed the approach is a surveillance program to determine the prevalence of the disease in U.S. herds -- and not a food safety program -- their statements did little to appease consumer groups.
"That's not enough," Michael Hansen, a microbiologist with Consumers Union in Yonkers, N.Y., told United Press International. "That's still less than 1 percent of the 35 million animals slaughtered each year."
The concern is humans can contract a fatal brain-wasting condition known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease from eating meat infected with mad cow.
The USDA program falls well short of the screening programs in place in other countries, Hansen said. For example, Japan tests 100 percent of its cows slaughtered for human consumption and France and Germany test 50 percent to 60 percent, he said.
The agency calculated that screening 201,000 cows would allow it to detect mad cow disease if it is present at the rate of 1 in 10 million adult cattle.
Dr. Peter Lurie, of the consumer group Public Citizen in Washington, D.C., disputed this assessment.
"This is nonsense," he said, "and seems to be designed to give the public and would-be importers of American cattle false assurance."
The USDA's assessment assumes all animals potentially infected with mad cow will be found among downers -- or animals unable to stand -- as well as dead animals and those showing symptoms of central nervous system disorders.
Lurie noted, however, this is a faulty assumption, because hundreds of seemingly healthy cattle in Europe have tested positive for the disease. In addition, there are significantly more non-downers than downer and sick animals in U.S. herds, he told UPI.
The USDA estimated about 446,000 cows out of the nearly 100 million in the nation's herds are downers, dead or sick. So the agency's testing program is not taking into account a sizeable population of seemingly healthy but potentially infected animals, Lurie said.
Robert LaBudde, president of Least Cost Formulation Ltd., a food industry consultancy in Virginia Beach, Va., said he thinks there are as many as 120 additional infected animals in the United States. Approximately half of those cases could be in animals with no apparent signs of disease.
"As soon as the USDA starts doing more testing, they're going to find more, probably a dozen or two, maybe up to a hundred," LaBudde told UPI.
As soon as additional cases turn up, there will be even more political pressure to expand their surveillance program and they will not be able to end the program after 12-18 months, as they anticipate, LaBudde said.
He added the agency may be forced to expand its program even before its scheduled start date of June 1, because foreign countries like Japan -- which shut their borders to U.S. beef after the detection of the lone mad cow in Washington last December -- still could call for increased testing.
"The chances are probably 50-50 that in a month they'll have to announce that 1 million animals will have to be tested," he said. "This thing moves quick because it's political."
The USDA did not return UPI's phone calls seeking comment.
The agency banned downers from going into the human food chain in December, so most of these animals are now going to rendering facilities. This means the USDA will need to focus on these operations to capture as many high-risk animals as possible in its new program.
Consumer groups expressed concern about that specific aspect of USDA's plan, because the agency intends to allow rendering facilities to process downer and sick cattle before the results of the mad cow test are known, then dispose of the rendered product later if there is a positive test.
Disposing of the infected material might not reduce the risk, however, because the rendering machinery will be contaminated, said Sheldon Rampton, co-author of "Mad Cow U.S.A."
Prions, the infectious agents thought to cause mad cow disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, are extremely resistant to heat and once they are in the machinery, it can be difficult to remove them, Rampton told UPI. He noted surgical equipment previously used on humans with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease has infected other people -- even after it was sterilized by autoclaving.
Lurie said he had two worries about the agency's rendering plan.
"One is that, by mistake, material that turns out be infected ends up getting released, and the second is by then you've contaminated your entire rendering system," he said.
Tom Cooke, president of the National Renderer's Association, a trade group in Alexandria, Va., said the equipment can be decontaminated by flushing it out with fresh, uncontaminated material.
"That's news to me," Lurie responded, "and the burden is certainly on them to provide that kind of data."
Cooke said proteins from rendering are not used in products intended for human consumption -- only the fat and tallow is and this is not infectious.
Lurie said, however, hide and bones from cows are boiled down to create gelatin capsules for pharmaceuticals and other uses, although the infectivity is probably extremely low.
In addition, Dr. Paul Brown of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes in Bethesda, Md., told UPI in an interview in December that tallow could contain infectious prions. Tallow is skimmed off of what ultimately goes on to become meat and bone meal for cattle and thus it can contain some liquid protein, which could include some prions, Brown said.
The real concern about the rendering loophole, Lurie said, is not so much for people but whether any infectious material makes its way back to cattle because rendered product can be fed to chickens and pigs, and these animals can in turn be fed to cows. If the disease can be transmitted this way, he continued, then this raises concern about amplifying the prevalence of mad cow disease among the U.S. herds, which could then entail a heightened risk for consumers.
Felicia Nestor, of the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower group in Washington, expressed concern that because the USDA has announced a start date, and has identified the 40 slaughtering facilities that will be screening healthy, older animals, that ranchers and farmers will know to avoid those plants. They also could begin culling their herds of any older animals prior to the June start date.
"These are issues that really need to be taken care of," Nestor told UPI.
Steve Mitchell is UPI's Medical Correspondent. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org