WASHINGTON – The United States is vulnerable to the deadly mad cow disease due to significant flaws in its ban on feeding cattle the remains of other animals, congressional investigators said Tuesday.
However, government and industry officials dismissed the General Accounting Office (GAO) report, saying more comprehensive studies have found the United States is at little risk to the disease.
Since 1997, the Food and Drug Administration's feed ban has been considered the first line of defense from the spread of mad cow disease in the United States, which has never reported a case.
In its investigation, the GAO said the FDA was using "inaccurate, incomplete, and unreliable data" to track and oversee feed ban compliance within the U.S meat industry.
"FDA's failure to enforce the feed ban may already have placed U.S. herds and, in turn, the human food supply at risk," the report stated.
Mad cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), was believed to have spread from Britain to other European countries when the bones, spinal cord and other remains of diseased cattle were ground up for use in livestock feed.
In contrast to the GAO report, Harvard University in its three-year study said the U.S. was "extremely unlikely" to get the deadly disease.
The GAO said it found several instances where U.S. meat plants were not complying with the FDA feed ban despite repeated warnings from the agency.
Murray Lumpkin, FDA senior associate commissioner, said about 100 U.S. feed mills out of 10,000 currently do not meet federal requirements.
"Clearly we are concerned that some plants are not in compliance," Lumpkin told Reuters. "So we are continuing to focus our enforcement efforts."
GAO said mad cow disease could have found its way into the U.S. if these meat plants had used diseased beef imports in their animal feed.
The GAO report said the United States purchased about 125 million pounds of beef and about 1,000 cattle from countries that later reported a case of mad cow disease. Experts say there is no evidence that the meat products had the disease, which can survive without detection for up to eight years.
GAO recommended the FDA, working closely with states, develop a detailed enforcement strategy to quickly address companies that fail to comply with the feed ban.
The report also urged the FDA and U.S. Agriculture Department to consider labeling products that contain the cattle's brains and spinal cord, which are susceptible to mad cow disease.
GAO said FDA was reviewing whether to ban all brains and spinal cord tissue from foods it regulates, as well as cosmetics and over-the-counter drugs.
USDA and U.S. meat groups said meat labels were not necessary because mad cow disease did not exist in U.S. livestock.
"Labeling and warning statements should be reserved for known hazards," USDA said in a statement.
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said the GAO report had a number of scientific and technical errors that USDA pointed out, but were never corrected.
U.S. meat groups said the report did not take into consideration recent steps federal agencies have implemented to strengthen mad cow defenses.
"This report simply misinterprets, or simply ignores the effectiveness of measures already taken," said Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute.
More than 100 people in Britain, France and Ireland have died from or been diagnosed with the human version, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), after eating infected meat.
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat who requested the GAO study, said he would soon introduce legislation that would broaden the government's feed ban for cattle.