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Consumers may have a beef with cattle feed

Elizabeth Weise

USA Today

June 10, 2003

If you don't finish your steak at a restaurant, did you know the leftovers might be dinner for a cow? Or that calves, instead of drinking their mothers' milk, are fed formula made from cows' blood?

These practices, all perfectly legal, have come to light with the discovery last month of North America's first homegrown case of "mad cow" disease.

Rocked by the specter of spreading infection on the continent, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Department of Agriculture have turned their attention to ways of keeping deadly agents that spread the disease out of cattle and cattle feed.

But opening this delicate topic could have unappetizing consequences for consumers who rarely think about what those sizzling steaks and burgers went through on the way from feedlot to backyard grill. When they do, they might not want to pay higher prices to change the system.

Americans have a bucolic image of cows happily chomping grass in fields. Many don't know that modern animal husbandry practices have provided cheap, plentiful meat through such standard practices as feeding cattle not only pieces of their herd mates (before the practice was banned in 1997) but also chicken litter, leftover restaurant food and out-of-date pet food.

Cleaning up this act could be costly, and Americans demand cheap meat, says Janice Swanson, an animal behavior specialist who studies cattle at Kansas State University.

"The consuming public needs to understand that it's not just the fault of the producers. The pressure on them is to produce a product that's so cheap that they have to capture every possible efficiency," Swanson says. "The average consumer doesn't care, and they're not going to pay one penny more."

For now, that choice seems far away. Authorities have found "mad cow" disease in only a single cow in Canada, although it was reported Wednesday that five steers that once were part of that cow's herd had been shipped to Montana and later sent to slaughter. Officials caution that there's no reason to believe the bulls were infected because all other animals from that herd have tested negative.

Even so, the authorities have taken no chances: The United States closed the border to Canadian cattle and beef products after the discovery, and teams of USDA and FDA investigators descended on Canada and Montana.

Government reaction

Even if this case is contained, authorities want to head off disaster. Scientists know there's only one way a cow a natural herbivore can get bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, the brain-wasting disease that in its human form has killed at least 150 people worldwide since 1996 and devastated the British beef industry. It has to be given feed by its human handlers that contains infected animal byproducts. In short, someone has to feed it ground-up cow.

The FDA tests 600 domestic and 600 import feed samples a year for prohibited materials, which include ground-up ruminants animals that chew their cud such as cows, sheep and goats in cow feed. Consumer groups say this is woefully inadequate.

On Nov. 6, the FDA published an "advance notice of proposed rulemaking," federal-speak indicating that the agency might change meat industry regulations. The FDA notice was couched as the beginning of a discussion on whether it was even necessary to change the rules on cattle feeding practices.

The leisurely nature of this discussion is gone. Industry leaders agree current U.S. rules on the feeding of cattle the mostly likely source of the infection in Canada will undergo a major overhaul, though no one can say when.

"Before this thing in Canada happened, I really doubted there would be much change," says Rex Runyon of the American Feed Industry Association. "But now ... it's going to happen; they're going to make some changes."

The five areas of discussion the FDA delineated in its November notice include:

Excluding brain and spinal cord from animal byproducts. Before the outbreak of mad cow in Britain, cows were given feed that included the ground-up remnants of cows. The most dangerous of these byproducts are the brains and spinal cords, the tissues that harbor the most infectious agents. Mad cow is caused by prions, proteins that for unknown reasons fold into the wrong shape and wreak havoc.

As for using the parts of animals that we don't consume, the rendering industry was considered an ecological success until mad cow, says Will Hueston, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Animal Health and Food Safety and a BSE expert.

"You were cooking the material, reducing the bulk, extracting the fat which could be used in soaps, candles, fuels and a whole range of industrial uses, and the rendered protein material turned out to be a great protein supplement. It looked like a win-win situation," Hueston says. "And remember that prior to BSE, everyone believed that the high-temperature cooking in rendering kills all the disease organisms."

What happened in Britain in the late 1980s was a cycle of infection in which a sick animal's parts went into the feed and infected more animals. Britain eventually banned the feeding of meat and bone meal to animals, which stopped the disease in its tracks.

In response to the outbreak in Britain and other European countries, the United States and Canada in 1997 made it illegal to feed cows meat and bone meal made from ruminants. The feed bans in both countries do allow use of that feed for poultry and pigs.

But the larger concern since the inception of that ban has been that there were too many loopholes, too many ways for material that can transmit mad cow to get to cows and then possibly to humans.

The crisis "calls for some pretty drastic measures if we're going to try to ensure the safety of the beef industry," says Larry Hollis, an extension veterinarian at Kansas State University. To him, and to many in the industry, a total ban keeping all mammal by-products out of animal feed might be the only way to protect consumers. "Some people are so hung up on low-cost production that they will violate whatever rules are there," Hollis says. "Unless we keep it out of the feed stream for any purpose, we could have trouble."

Says John Stauber, author of Mad Cow USA: Could the Nightmare Happen Here?: "What we need to do is obvious but economically painful for the livestock industry. That's to implement exactly the same regulations that exist in Britain and Europe and ban all feeding of slaughterhouse waste to livestock."

New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle, author of Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology and Bioterrorism, says: "There are lots of reasons why cannibalism isn't a good idea. This is a real wake-up call about the way we've been feeding animals."

The use of poultry litter in cattle feed. In parts of the country where cattle are raised near poultry production areas, it's not uncommon to feed them poultry litter basically excreta, bedding, spilled feed and feathers. This practice is not allowed in Canada.

Chickens can't get any diseases similar to mad cow, so they can legally be fed meat and bone meal made from cattle. But there is concern that spilled feed as well as partially digested feed might end up back in cattle troughs, resulting in the same potential cycle of infection that caused the British outbreak of mad cow.

"It's gross," says Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Until BSE, this was this hidden issue of what the animals were eating."

But it makes sense from a nutrition stance, says Neil Lamming, a BSE educator with the Washington state Department of Agriculture. Cows have four stomachs that can digest this material and extract nutrients in a way that animals with one stomach cannot.

Because Washington isn't a major poultry producing state, the practice isn't common there. But Ali Kashani, who manages the state's feed program, acknowledges that there's a public relations problem. "The main reason it's not so widespread is because of consumer reaction to it." Kashani says.

Eliminating the restaurant-plate waste exemption to the feed ban. The 1997 law that banned most mammalian remains from cattle feed has an interesting provision that clears a path from cuisine to cow. The "plate waste" exemption allows restaurants to sell plate scrapings and leftovers to renderers, which turn them into cattle feed, among other things.

The American Feed Industry Association's Runyon defends the exemption: "How can you tell the consumer 'Hey, you've just eaten a T-bone steak and it's fine for you, but you can't feed it to animals'? "

The use of pet food in ruminant feed. Retail pet food frequently contains ruminant meat and bone meal, but unlike agricultural animal feed, there's no requirement that it be labeled "Do not feed to cattle or other ruminants." However, out-of-date dry cat and dog food is sometimes sold as salvage and ends up being fed to cattle. The FDA is wondering whether all pet food should be labeled, just in case.

Preventing cross-contamination of feed. A Government Accounting Office report found that at rendering and feed plants where both ruminant and non-ruminant meat and bone meal were made, cross-contamination could occur. FDA is considering whether it should require that rendering and feed plants be allowed to do only one or the other, but not both, to guard against cross-contamination.

It's in the blood

Spray-dried cow and pig blood is used in feed to provide protein, as a ....

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