WASHINGTON – American cattle are eating chicken litter, cattle blood and restaurant leftovers that could help transmit mad cow disease (search) — a gap in the U.S. defense that the Bush administration promised to close nearly 18 months ago.
"Once the cameras were turned off and the media coverage dissipated, then it's been business as usual, no real reform, just keep feeding slaughterhouse waste," said John Stauber (search), an activist and co-author of "Mad Cow USA: Could the Nightmare Happen Here?"
He contended, "The entire U.S. policy is designed to protect the livestock industry's access to slaughterhouse waste as cheap feed."
The Food and Drug Administration (search) promised to tighten feed rules shortly after the first case of mad cow disease was confirmed in the U.S., in a Washington state cow in December 2003.
"Today we are bolstering our BSE firewalls to protect the public," Mark McClellan, then- FDA commissioner, said on Jan. 26, 2004. FDA said it would ban blood, poultry litter and restaurant plate waste from cattle feed and require feed mills to use separate equipment to make cattle feed.
However, last July, the FDA scrapped those restrictions. McClellan's replacement, Lester Crawford (search), said international experts were calling for even stronger rules and that FDA would produce new restrictions in line with the experts' report.
Today, the FDA still has not done what it promised to do. The agency declined interviews, saying in a statement only that there is no timeline for new restrictions.
"It's just a lot of talk," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., a senior House Democrat on food and farm issues. "It's a lot of talk, a lot of press releases, and no action."
Unlike other infections, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (search), BSE, or mad cow disease, doesn't spread through the air. As far as scientists know, cows get the disease only by eating brain and other nerve tissues of already-infected cows.
Ground-up cattle remains left over from slaughtering operations were used as protein in cattle feed until 1997, when an outbreak of mad cow cases in Britain prompted the U.S. to order the feed industry to quit doing it. Unlike Britain, however, the U.S. feed ban has exceptions.
For example, it's legal to put ground-up cattle remains in chicken feed. Feed that spills from cages mixes with chicken waste on the ground, then is swept up for use in cattle feed.
Scientists believe the BSE protein will survive the feed-making process and may even survive the trip through a chicken's gut.
That amounts to the legal feeding of some cattle protein back to cattle, said Linda Detwiler, a former Agriculture Department (search) veterinarian who led the department's work on mad cow disease for several years.
"I would stipulate it's probably not a real common thing, and the amounts are pretty small," Detwiler said. But still, if cattle protein is in the system, it's being fed back to cattle, she said in an interview.
Cattle protein can also be fed to chickens, pigs and household pets, which presents the risk of accidental contamination in a feed mill.
The General Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said last month that a feed mill, which it did not identify, accidentally mixed banned protein into cattle feed. By the time inspectors discovered the problem and the mill issued a recall, potentially contaminated cattle feed had already been on the market for about a year, GAO said.
Rendering companies, which process slaughter waste, contend that new restrictions would be costly and create hazards from leftover waste. They say changes are not justified.
"We process about 50 billion pounds of product annually — in visual terms, that is a convoy of semi trucks, four lanes wide, running from New York to L.A. every year," said Jim Hodges, president of the meatpacking industry's American Meat Institute Foundation (search).
While new restrictions stalled, the administration also ignored the advice of its own experts to close the loopholes before allowing Canadian cattle back into the U.S.
Cattle trade "should not resume unless and until" loopholes in the feed ban are closed, according to an internal Agriculture Department memo, written by its working group of BSE experts in the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, dated June 15, 2003, shortly after Canada's first case of mad cow disease.
The ranchers' group, R-CALF United Stockgrowers of America (search), obtained the memo as part of its lawsuit against the department.
Even though the loopholes remain, the Agriculture Department late last year approved reopening the border. Only a federal judge in Montana is keeping the border closed. He sided with R-CALF, which fears another infected cow shipped south might be carrying the disease, just like the lone U.S. case found in Washington state in 2003.
Today, the department maintains that much has been learned since the memo was written. Lisa Ferguson, senior staff veterinarian for the department, said the memo didn't mean the government thought the feed ban was inadequate "or anything other than what it was, a group of suggestions from a group of employees at that point in time."
"Is our feed ban completely perfect and absolutely airtight?" she said. "No, I don't think anybody would claim that. Could changes be made? Yes, changes can be made."