This week, in letters to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, and Margaret Hamburg, commissioner, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Consumers Union wants more done in the wake of a discovery last week of a cow infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy. The group contends "finding a case of mad cow in the USDA's current very small testing program is a 'warning flag.'" The group notes the agency tests only 40,000 of the 35 million cattle slaughtered in the U.S. annually.
The group also contends that the "atypical" form of BSE found in the infected cow carcass is a concern. In its letter, CU cites studies that suggest L-type BSE can be transmitted to humans possible more easily than "classical" BSE - a disease linked to more than 100 deaths in the United Kingdom.
“It is essential that USDA conduct a thorough investigation of this case, including testing of all of the infected cow’s offspring, and all cows that may ever have consumed the same feed, including current herd mates,” stated Dr. Michael Hansen, a senior scientist with Consumers Union, and an expert on BSE. The number of cattle tested for mad cow disease has fallen almost 90% since 2005, according to USDA’s own statistics.
The organization also counters that talk of the atypical BSE being "spontaneous" may not be true and could have been acquired from infected feed. "Consumers Union urges the USDA to increase its currently very small surveillance program of 40,000 tests annually by a factor of at least 10, for several years," says Hansen. "It is surprising that the existing small testing program even detected this case, if in fact the incidence of mad cow in the U.S. is very low. We need to expand the program to at least the levels USDA used in 2004 and 2005 to insure that this deadly disease is not occurring anywhere else."
The organization also encourages the use of private testing facilities, and is concerned about the practice where slaughterhouse wastes may be fed to poultry; and the organization is encouraging a ban on the use of cattle brain and other high-risk material in animal feed, including pet food. And the group wants a ban on the use of cow blood in milk replacer for weaning calves, noting that blood transfusions are a known means of transmitting BSE infections.