Published December 27, 2003
PORTLAND, Ore. – Cow parts — including hooves, bones, fat and innards — are used in everything from hand cream and antifreeze to poultry feed and gardening soils.
In the next tangled phase of the mad cow investigation, federal inspectors are concentrating on byproducts from the tainted Holstein, which might have gone to a half-dozen distributors in the Northwest, said Dalton Hobbs (search), spokesman for the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
Now, it's the secondary parts, the raw material for soil, soaps and candles, that are being recalled.
While some people fear consumers could be infected by inhaling particles of fertilizer or other products containing the mutated protein responsible for mad cow disease, a bigger concern is stopping tainted byproducts from infecting animal feed, believed to be the main agent for spreading the disease.
But tracing all of the sick cow's parts to their final destination, including numerous possible incarnations in household products, has proved challenging.
"It's like the old Upton Sinclair line — 'We use everything but the squeal,"' Hobbs said. "We have nearly 100 percent utilization of the animal. But when you have so many niche markets, it makes it incredibly challenging to trace where this one cow may have gone."
Los Angeles-based Baker Commodities, Inc. (search), announced Friday it has voluntarily withheld 800 tons of cow byproduct processed in its Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., plants. The company, like other "renderers," takes what is left of the cow after it is slaughtered and boils it down into tallow, used for candles, lubricants and soaps, and bone meal used in fertilizer and animal feed.
If the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (search) determines that the material is tainted, the company's loss could total $200,000, said spokesman Ray Kelly.
"It's obviously a tragic thing for the whole beef industry, but it's definitely a sizable hit for us," he said.
Darling International, Inc., the nation's largest independent rendering operation in the U.S., has also been contacted by the FDA. But officials at their Tacoma and Portland plants, as well as at their international headquarters in Irving, Texas, declined to comment on how their operation has been affected.
"Our first priority was to make sure it didn't go into the food supply," said Hobbs, reiterating that meat sent to two Oregon distributors was recalled earlier in the week.
Companies that use bone meal from cows to create fertilizers popular with rose growers may find themselves under the spotlight. At the height of Britain's mad cow epidemic in the 1990s, three victims of the human form of mad cow were found to be gardeners.
In 1996, the Royal Horticultural Society of London released an advisory, cautioning gardeners to wear face masks after it was reported that the dust from the bone-meal soil could carry the mutated protein.
But Scientific American editor Philip Yam said there was no conclusive evidence the gardeners died from inhaling soil containing the infected cow tissue.
A far greater risk is the cow material — including roughage and offal — used in animal feed, said Yam, whose book, "The Pathological Protein," is a scientific account of the disease.
In 1997, the FDA banned cow feed that included cow byproducts, after scientists concluded that the feed was the main transmitter of mad cow disease. The disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, is found in a cow's nervous system.
Yam points out that while giving cow feed to cows was outlawed, feeding it to poultry is still legal. Some farmers, he said, are still in the habit of feeding their cows "chicken litter" — the remains of the poultry feed, scooped off the ground, feathers and all.
"It's one of those loopholes," Yam said. "It sounds good in theory — don't feed cow to cow, feed the remains to chickens. But in practice things happen."
Critics also speculate that while chickens cannot contract BSE, they could act as carriers of the disease if they pick up prions in their feed and are themselves processed into cattle feed. Consumer advocates have also questioned whether feed processing plants have all strictly separated cow feed from other feed produced at the same facilities.
The Food and Drug Administration has said it will probably write new regulations that could require companies that slaughter "downer" livestock — animals that are sick or injured — to dispose of the brain and spinal cord before mixing animal feed and pet food, expanding on the 1997 ban.
Robert Assali, who manages Southern Oregon Tallow in Eagle Point, Ore., said he sees the end of his profession if the mad cow hype continues.
"We're going to become a mortuary service — just hauling animals to landfills," Assali said.