Cow Rendering - Ingenuity Gone Mad

Last week the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommended changes in standards for cattle feed aimed at controlling the spread of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), which can infect humans in the form of Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease (vCJD), both are prion diseases. The FDA has opened its comment period on the standards, which although new, have been discussed for years.

Commonly known as "mad-cow" disease, there have only been two reported cases in US cows. Even in the UK and Japan where prion diseases are more common, infection is relatively rare both to cows and humans. But whatever the actual risks of the disease, the public fears these diseases because they are unpredictable, fearsome and fatal.

The FDA press release says the new rules add to the series of "firewalls" against the spread of the disease by banning cattle feed made from the brains and spinal cords of cattle 30 months or older, as well as banning animals that haven't been inspected, banning certain tallow products and mechanically separated beef.

The Consumer's Union criticized the rules. They point out that there's nothing stopping cow blood from being fed to calves in lieu of milk. They stress that only the elimination of the practice of feeding any animal remains to mammals would protect the public from the current risks. Furthermore, Consumer's Union said they took similar "halfway steps" which allowed the disease to continue spreading. As well, "thirty months is not a magic safe number", they said since Japan found cases of mad cow disease in younger cows. (The risk of disease is greater for older animals so "thirty months" is commonly used in import bans aimed at curbing the spread of the disease.)

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) also criticized the federal action. Chicken litter, restaurant plate waste and cattle blood should be eliminated from cattle feed and cattle parts should be banned from all animal feed, they said. The group is also critical of "Advanced Meat Recovery" systems that are used to extract every last bit of residue from cattle carcasses and label it "meat".

The FDA says that the plan will cost the cattle industry about $14 million a year, nevertheless the industry "applauded" the new rules.

Although the industry is understandably dedicated to preserving the profits they extract from all parts of the animal, it seems that without mitigating all the risks the agency and the industry flirt with the possibility of future disease. If you familiarize yourself with any of these agricultural practices, you'll understand why the Atlantic Journal Constitution called them "quite frankly, disgusting" (Our Opinions: Beef up U.S. mad cow protections Date: October 6, 2005). That the FDA still allows many of these processes, like feed made from chicken excrement and restaurant scraps -- seems cavalier at best. The FDA docket is submitted here for public comment.

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