February 5, 2004
US Cattle Group Says BSE Panel BSE Report Inaccurate
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association said that the international BSE panel's report on mad cow disease in North America is inaccurate as it fails to take into account the steps the U.S. and Canada have taken since 1989 to reduce the risk of BSE.
Those actions led the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis to conclude the U.S. system is "robust" against the amplification and spread of BSE, said Gary Weber, executive director for regulatory affairs for the NCBA.
Weber said the report, issued by a subcommittee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary's Foreign Animal and Poultry Disease Advisory Committee, will be reviewed by the committee before it heads to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman's desk for any action she might think is necessary. He said it is part of a normal, transparent process for gathering opinions from around the world to help guide U.S. policies.
Weber and NCBA Vice President of Government Affairs Chandler Keys said that while they don't agree with some of the panel's conclusions, the industry would support and follow any recommendations made by the USDA.
It was important to note, Weber said, that three of the members on the review team had their experience with BSE forged through the difficult times in the European community where BSE spread uncontrolled for many years, where their efforts to regulate and prevent further spread failed because of lack of enforcement. Naturally, those experiences affect their view of the U.S. system, Weber said.
Weber called the U.S. system "aggressive," one that has been amended several times since 1989 as science has been made available. It was further expanded in 2003.
The subcommittee was made up of three representatives from Europe, one from New Zealand and one from the U.S.
"Clearly, some members of the panel do not have a full understanding of the systems we have in place in the U.S.," Weber said. "Many of the panel's recommendations are based on the European model and overlook scientific evidence that clearly demonstrates the long-standing firewalls in place in our country have been effective."
The Harvard Center conducted a comprehensive multi-year assessment of the risk of BSE in the U.S. and concluded that the U.S. system is robust against the spread of BSE to animals or humans.
Weber said the panel's work is an important step in the process following the BSE case identified in December, but the panel must consider the proactive efforts already in place before calling for additional measures that won't help reduce risk any further.
"We take issue with this report because it implies the risk of BSE has not been mitigated in this country," said Weber. "That is simply not the case."
Weber explained the panel's recommendation against all mammalian protein in cattle feed by pointing out that the panel said if it can be proven that all ruminant protein has been excluded from mammalian protein feeds, then a ban on all mammalian proteins in feed may not be necessary.
"We believe that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has outstanding information on compliance to indicate that this standard has already been met, and the additional measures they've taken to put in place dedicated feed mills and to remove some of the exemptions from the existing feed rule will completely tighten this feed area up to achieve the expectations of this international review team," Weber said.
In response to a question about the increased level of testing recommended by the review panel, Weber said the panel didn't believe the U.S. surveillance system has worked. So the U.S. needs to find a way to make the panel feel comfortable with the U.S. saying it is low risk, he said.
The report says its increased testing recommendation needs to be done unless the U.S. can prove that it has a low risk of BSE, so the U.S. should look seriously at expanding surveillance in a way that will achieve its desire for increased information to prove that the U.S. really is as low a risk as it says it is, Weber said. He was sure the USDA would look at the recommendations very carefully.
It was "a pretty irresponsible remark" by Ulrich Kihm, head of the international panel, to say that the U.S. could come up with "a case a month," Keys said. In the U.S., it has been six weeks, not a month, since the last positive test.
Keys said later that Kihm stressed that his statement was his opinion only, but Keys said giving such an opinion during the release of the panel's findings made it seem as if it were the panel's thoughts, which was not the case.
The panel did say it believed there could be a few more North American cases, maybe three to five cases, Weber said. But even if there were, the safeguards in place in the U.S. and Canada would prevent amplification of the disease and its spread to humans.
The pair also said the USDA's goal of testing 40,000 targeted cattle this year for BSE would be enough to bring a level of confidence that says there are fewer than one case in 10 million animals. They said testing all of the estimated 70,000 to 195,000 dead and dying non-walking cattle in the U.S. every year was not necessary to achieve that level of confidence.
Weber also said that even if that meant there were a case or two a year, the firewalls in place would protect the public from specified risk materials.
Weber said current USDA regulations to remove all SRMS from the carcasses of older cattle was a very good approach to protecting human health and was supported by the NCBA. As far as banning SRMs from animal feed, the organization is still looking at the issue and would comment on its effectiveness later.
The cost of banning mammalian protein in cattle feed was estimated at about $700 million a year, Weber said. The two said other ways of assuring the feed goals could be accomplished for about $200 million.