New `mad cow' rules unveiled

FDA's proposal prohibits use of brains, spinal cords in animal feed

critics say ban isn't `closing all gaps'


WASHINGTON -- In response to the threat of mad cow disease, the Food and Drug Administration proposed yesterday banning the use of certain potentially infectious cattle parts in animal feed, but the agency brushed aside other safety measures it had appeared to endorse last year.

The new rules, to take effect early next year, are expected to reduce the risk of infection by 90 percent, said Stephen F. Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine.

Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is believed to be caused by abnormal proteins, known as prions, found in brain and nerve tissue. Cattle can become infected if they eat feed contaminated with the infectious agent.

The FDA's proposal bans the use of spinal cords and brains from cows 30 months or older and those that were not approved for human consumption in feeds marketed for poultry, pigs and pets. It does not include a ban on other so-called standard risk materials, or SRMs, such as cattle blood, poultry litter or restaurant plate waste.

Critics of the proposal said the government was not "closing all the gaps" in the feed ban, as then-FDA Commissioner Lester Crawford had promised to do last month. Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said that "when you dig down, it appears that they have put in a new definition of SRMs to apply to this rule. We could call it `SRM light.'"

Infection levels are believed to rise as cattle grow older, hence the 30-month age cutoff, but because there is no identification tracking system in the United States, it becomes difficult to assess exact ages, DeWaal said.

The original feed rule, first imposed in 1997 as a result of the mad cow outbreak in Britain, banned the uses of cattle parts only in cattle feed. After the discovery of the first U.S. case in December 2003, the FDA began work on revisions of the rule.

The new proposal also does not include other cattle tissues, such as eyes or small intestines, considered "specified risk materials" by the U.S. Agriculture Department.

"Feed regulations that are truly protective of animal and public health must incorporate a ban on all bovine SRMs in all animal feed and end the exemptions for blood, plate waste and poultry litter," said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen's Food Program. "Until these changes are made by FDA, consumers will remain at risk."

Sundlof responded to critics by saying that "further prohibitions on other materials just don't have a great effect on risk reduction and add a significant environment and monetary cost."

Emma Vaughn writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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