August 20, 2003
USDA Wants Stronger Surveillance For BSE On US Farms
The U.S. Department of Agriculture wants to expand its testing authority for bovine spongiform encephalopathy to include sick and dying animals on the farm so diseased meat will not reach the food supply.
Department veterinarians have the authority to secure samples from cattle that die in the field, but when it comes to "downer" animals, those too sick to even stand, the USDA must wait until they are brought to the slaughterhouse to collect samples.
According to Peter Fernandez, a USDA veterinarian, "The issue here is many times some of these animals don't come through abattoir. This regulation would be a way to try to get access to any animals...on-farm."
USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, in a call earlier this year for public comment on the need for increased surveillance for mad-cow disease, scientifically known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, said it believes "dead stock and downer animals represent the most significant potential pathway that has not been addressed in previous efforts to reduce BSE risks."
It is vitally important that veterinarians be able to test downer animals on the farm, USDA said, because slaughterhouse inspectors may not be able to tell if cattle suffer from BSE.
"Downer cattle presented for slaughter that pass antemortem inspection may be slaughtered and, if passed on postmortem inspection, the meat and meat products from such cattle can be used for human food," according to USDA.
While USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service oversees the slaughterhouse inspections, APHIS is more concerned with making sure that BSE- infected cattle never make it to slaughter houses or rendering plants that produce animal feed, cosmetics and other products.
"We are looking for actions we could take now, rather than actions to be taken if and when BSE is ever introduced," APHIS said.
U.S. law prohibits including rendered ruminants in feed for ruminants, a practice the USDA says it believes could spread BSE, but APHIS stressed concern the prohibition is not foolproof.
"Since some BSE agent survives rendering, if BSE were to be present in a rendered product that is used in cattle feed (in deliberate or accidental violation of the feed ban imposed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) it could lead to the amplification and spread of BSE among cattle consuming that feed," APHIS said.
Darling International Inc., a Texas-based rendering company, said in a statement mailed to the USDA that it believes the feed concern is unfounded.
"Compliance to the Feed Rule will insure that cattle and other ruminants are not fed materials derived from ruminant animals," the company said, making it irrelevant whether or not sick cattle are rendered.
There is no law prohibiting the slaughter and processing of downer animals for the human food supply, although Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., has tried and failed twice to create one.
"Canada should be a lesson to us," Ackerman said recently in debate on the House of Representatives floor.
The Canadian cow in Alberta that tested positive for BSE in May, triggering a U.S. ban on Canada's beef and cattle exports, was a downer animal.
Powerful opponents such as House Agriculture Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R- Va., argued that such a law would remove the only way officials have of getting access to downer cattle - slaughterhouse inspection.
Rep. Charlie Stenholm, D-Texas, expressed concern that prohibiting the slaughter of downer cattle would unnecessarily deprive farmers of revenue because many are not diseased, but injured and otherwise healthy.
Moyer Packing Co., a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, said in a letter to the USDA it is concerned some of the new safety restrictions being considered may be far too costly for industry.
"It appears (APHIS) may be setting the stage for developing a policy of near-zero risk, no matter what the cost to the livestock, meat and rendering industries," the company said. "Because of the costs, impracticality and lack of scientific validity of a 'zero risk' regulatory approach we believe such
regulation would be ill-advised."
Don Franco, a veterinarian and head of the Center for Biosecurity, Food Safety and Public Health said he is concerned USDA may be trying to do what Ackerman failed to legislate - prohibiting downer cattle from being slaughtered.
"If these (downer) cattle are not sent to slaughter, where will they go?" Franco asked in a letter to USDA.
The answer to that question, according to USDA's APHIS, is often a hole in the ground.
Despite the risk APHIS points out in allowing downer or dead cattle to be rendered, the agency also stresses that the dangers of producers burying diseased animals on farms may be worse. In the case of BSE, APHIS said it believes that a cattle carcass could transfer the disease to other ruminants in the form of a related transmissible spongiform encephalopathy such as chronic wasting disease, which effects elk and deer, and scrapie, which affects sheep.
"Dead stock are a potential source of infection for many animal diseases, including BSE," according to APHIS. "In addition to making it harder to collect animal health data, inappropriate disposal of dead stock increases the possibility that humans, livestock or wildlife will come into contact with pathogens associated with the dead stock."
Many of the diseased cattle USDA suspects are being buried without proper testing were once sold for a profit to renderers, but carcass disposal has become mostly an added expense for farmers after years of steep decline in prices paid for rendered meat.
"If an animal dies on the farm, or becomes so sick or injured that it must be destroyed on the farm, it immediately loses most or all of its economic value," USDA's APHIS said. "It might be sold to be rendered, or to be processed as pet food, but in most cases the fee for picking up and transporting a dead animal exceeds the salvage value."
The USDA goes on to say, "The cheapest methods for dead stock disposal include ignoring the carcass or burying it on-site. Both of these means are legal in some states, and in other states that have specific disposal requirements, the requirements are often loosely enforced."
The USDA, in a Federal Register notice, touched upon several acceptable methods for cattle disposal such as "composting of dead stock," or incineration, but the department also asked the public for suggestions.