Harvard study shows risk of mad cow disease in U.S. is minimal

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WASHINGTON – The USDA Nov. 30 released a landmark study by Harvard University that shows the risk of bovine spongiform encephalopathy occurring in the United States is extremely low.

The report showed that early protection systems put into place by the USDA and Department of Health and Human Services have been largely responsible for keeping bovine spongiform encephalopathy – often called BSE or mad cow disease – out of the United States and would prevent it from spreading if it ever did enter the country.

Heightened alert. Even so, officials outlined a series of actions to be taken that would continue strengthening programs to reduce that risk even further.

The risk assessment was commissioned by USDA and conducted by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis.

It evaluates the ways mad cow disease could spread if it were to ever enter the United States.

The report’s purpose is to give agencies a scientific analysis to evaluate preventative measures already in place and identify additional actions that should be taken to minimize the risk of mad cow disease.

“We cannot let down our guard or reduce our vigilance,” said Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman.

‘Firmly confident.’ “Based on three years of thorough study, we are firmly confident that mad cow disease will not become an animal or public health problem in America, ” said George Gray, deputy director of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis and director of the project.

In response to the report, Veneman announced a series of actions the USDA would take to strengthen its mad cow disease prevention programs.

First, USDA will have the risk assessment peer reviewed by a team of outside experts to ensure its scientific integrity.

Second, the USDA will more than double the number of mad cow disease tests it will conduct this fiscal year, with over 12,500 cattle samples targeted in 2002 – up from 5,000 during 2001.

Third, USDA will publish a policy options paper outlining additional regulatory actions that may be taken to reduce the potential risk of exposure and ensure potential infectious materials remain out of the U.S food supply.

Under consideration. The options to be considered will include:

* prohibiting the use of brain and spinal cord from specified categories of animals in human food;

* prohibiting the use of central nervous system tissue in boneless beef products, including meat from advanced meat recovery (AMR) systems; and

* prohibiting the use of vertebral column from certain categories of cattle, including downed animals, in the production of meat from advanced meat recovery systems.

Fourth, USDA will issue a proposed rule to prohibit the use of certain stunning devices used to immobilize cattle during slaughter.

Fifth, USDA will publish an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to consider additional regulatory options for the disposal of dead stock on farms and ranches.

Such cattle are considered an important potential pathway for the spread of mad cow disease in the animal chain.

About BSE. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy has never been detected in U.S. cattle, nor has there been a case of the human form of the disease, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, detected in the United States.

Since 1989, USDA has banned the import of live ruminants, such as cattle, sheep and goats, and most ruminant products from the United Kingdom and other countries having mad cow disease. The ban was extended to Europe in 1997.

To stop the way the disease is thought to spread, the United States prohibited the use of most mammalian protein in the manufacture of animal feed intended for cows and other ruminants.

Should a case of mad cow disease ever be detected in this country, an emergency response plan has been developed to immediately control suspect animals and prevent them from entering the food supply.

Mad cow disease is a chronic, degenerative neurological disorder of cattle that belongs to a family of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies.

Also included in that family of illnesses is vCJD, which is believed to be caused by eating neural tissue, such as brain and spinal cord, from mad cow disease-affected cattle.

A complete copy of the Harvard report can be obtained from USDA’s official Web site at http://www.usda.gov/.

For more information about mad cow disease and the efforts being taken to prevent its entry and spread into the United States, also visit http://www.usda.gov/ or http://www.hhs.gov/.

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