TOPICS > Health

Food Scare

January 26, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: To discuss the disease and the efforts to prevent its spread to this country, we turn to Dr. Murray Lumpkin, senior medical adviser in the commissioner’s office at the Food and Drug Administration; Dr. Paul Brown, a senior research scientist at the National Institutes of Health– he chairs a committee that advises the FDA On Mad Cow Disease; and Dr. Peter Lurie, deputy director of the health research group for the consumer organization, Public Citizen– he also advises the FDA. Dr. Brown, I want to go back over the science, just briefly, of all this. You have said there is a lot of uncertainty about Mad Cow Disease. What can you say about is know certainly about its provenance and also about how humans get it?

DR. PAUL BROWN: Well, I think the only thing that we can say for absolute certain is that the human disease called variant Creutzfeld — variant Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease is the result of infection with Mad Cow Disease. Everything else about this story is more or less plausible speculation.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Even that it may come from rendered meat and bone meal products in feed?

DR. PAUL BROWN: Yeah, I think we’ll never prove the historical origin of this disease, but by far the most plausible explanation is the material that you’ve heard about, meat and bone meal, which is a product of rendered carcasses. And in the rendering mix, all kinds of things go in it-carcasses from which everything has been removed, livestock, road kill, dying pets, plate waste, it’s a great mix of things. Among this — in this mix, would be carcasses from sheep, and sheep have a natural disease called Scrapie, which has been known for at least 250 years. And it’s probable that around 1980, because of changes in the rendering process, some of the infectivity of Scrape-infected sheep survived it and got into cattle.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So cattle get it. Cooking doesn’t make any difference in this case; it’s not like other diseases that you can get from meat. A human eats it, the protein, the offending protein then spreads to the human’s brain. Is that the idea?

DR. PAUL BROWN: Yes, that is correct, and there’s a popular misconception that this is from eating beef. Beef, as such, in contrast to what you heard from one of your interviewed people, we know quite a lot about. It is not infectious. It is not infectious in any of this group of diseases, including Mad Cow Disease.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It’s beef products.

DR. PAUL BROWN: It’s beef products that have been contaminated with central nervous system. Again, that’s not proven, but it’s very plausible.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you mean beef products in something like sausage, for example.

DR. PAUL BROWN: Exactly.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And also beef products in other places. Cosmetics, is that a possibility?

DR. PAUL BROWN: Well, beef products go into a lot of things. Gelatin goes into capsules that you swallow as pills. But in the processing of many of these products, any of the infectivity that might have been there would be destroyed. So it’s almost surely oral exposure and not, for example, cosmetics.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What about vaccines?

DR. PAUL BROWN: Well, vaccines are a sensitive issue because of course they’re given to children. Anything that involves children requires special care. By and large, vaccine exposure to anything that might be infectious is so low as to be almost zero. In other words, when you give a vaccine, the final product does not contain bovine materials. But the viruses, for example, that are used to make the vaccine may have been grown in tissue cultures that were fed with fetal bovine serum. But it is a passing phenomenon that is almost surely diluted to the point of near zero in the finished product.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Dr. Lurie, when you look at the situation in Europe, I mean, right now as we speak, slaughterhouses in Portugal are killing 50,000 cattle. Cattle are being killed all over the place. What do you see– big danger, fairly slow spread, hysteria? What do you see?

DR. PETER LURIE: I think we have a safety net in this country, but my concern is that it has a certain amount of breaches in it and that we aren’t as well protected as we really could be. I think the vaccines are perhaps an example of that, not so much in that there is a large risk of that, but the FDA asked the manufacturers to not use materials that came from British cows for… going back to 1993. But the manufacturers chose to ignore that recommendation from the FDA and they went ahead and did it anyway for at least seven years. So I think there are a number of holes we need to close. Dietary supplements, I think, are another. Here we have an FDA that has practically no authority to adequately regulate dietary supplements. And it is actually possible that one could make a dietary supplement from nervous tissue from a British cow and import it into this country. Now I’m not saying it has happened, but the FDA has so little in the way of regulatory authority over dietary supplements that I think this is a hole we must close immediately.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Dr. Brown, before we go any further, explain the dietary supplements you are talking about, and then back up a little and explain what you mean about the other problem that you mentioned.


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Go into a little more detail.

DR. PETER LURIE: Well, the dietary supplements can be made from extracts from brain, and some people, for reasons unclear to me, seem to find that a worthwhile thing to consume. The problem is that FDA and USDA don’t have adequate ability to monitor…

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I’m sorry. I meant to say Dr. Lurie. Go ahead.

DR. PETER LURIE: …don’t have adequate authority to monitor what is coming into the country. Very few inspections are done. Probably only 1% of all material that enters the country is inspected. And companies that are making dietary supplements from cow brain, for example, have every incentive to mislead the United States Government. And it’s that that worries me, that these kinds of materials that could enter.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The problem you mentioned about some of the feed coming into the country, do you think it could be that some cows here could have BSE and it hasn’t been recognized yet?

DR. PETER LURIE: Well, certainly there is no example of a cow in this country that has BSE, nor is there an example of a human with a human version of it in this country. But the British export records show 37 tons of meat and bone meal-type material that came into this country as recently as 1997. And we have FDA inspections done very recently that show that firstly they’ve only inspected about a third of the manufacturers of meal for cows. And secondly, among those that they have inspected up to a quarter of them do not have adequate procedures to prevent the recycling of cow parts into the feed of other cows.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Dr. Lumpkin, how good do you think the safety net is protecting Americans from Mad Cow Disease?

DR. MURRAY LUMPKIN: I think its like any other safety net, it is a safety net that has many components, redundancies that have been built into it, which are obviously quite necessary. I think like any type of an undertaking, it can always be improved. And for a lot of the reasons that you’ve heard from the other two guests on the show today, we have indeed, been working to do that.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what do you think about the specific problems that Dr. Lurie just mentioned?

DR. MURRAY LUMPKIN: I think the specific problems that Dr. Lurie mentioned are indeed the kinds of things that we are concerned about and have been concerned about. As he said, we have been working with manufacturers on this. When you look at the entirety of the problem, both from the animal perspective and the human disease perspective, we at the agency have to use the resources that we have and the authorities that we have in those areas where we think the greatest risk is. And up to this point in time, I think we believed that the greatest risk has been in the exchange of the feed to the cattle herds in this country. That’s where we’ve put our resources and efforts primarily up to this point in time.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And there you’re talking not so much about feed that may have come from Europe or from Britain, but feed that is actually made here from animal parts, right? And there was just a breach in that in Texas that was announced this week.

DR. MURRAY LUMPKIN: Exactly. I think what we’re trying to do here in this whole issue of feed and the appropriate feed to go into cattle, is to get into the normal process of how cattle are fed in this country, a good feeding practice, as it were, such that indeed this kind of feed that should not be given to cattle, whether it is produced in the United States or produced elsewhere. If it is produced elsewhere, it should not even be coming into the country, if it’s from a BSE-positive country. But we want the people that are involved in this process, from the farmers to the people in the feed lots to the feed manufacturers, to the people in the slaughterhouses, to all understand that our first and best defense in keeping this disease out of the American cattle herd is to have a strong process that makes sure that this kind of feed does not get to cattle in this country. That is the first line of defense.


DR. PETER LURIE: That’s all well and good. But the fact is that the FDA’s own inspection records show that they have not inspected that many plants, and in many cases don’t have adequate procedures there. And this week’s experience in Texas, as you described, is in fact, an example where material that very well might include recycled cow parts appears to have been fed to some cows in Texas. So they have inspection records that show the holes, and now we have actual information from Texas that as best we can tell shows the implications of just that. The FDA is doing a lot of work, but they’re simply not doing enough.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Dr. Lurie, so people understand, explain why it could be a problem for a cow in Texas to eat a feed made from cows ground up from the United States where we don’t have BSE? Supposedly.

DR. PETER LURIE: As far as we know, we don’t have any such cases. I certainly hope that’s the case. And substantial likelihood that is the case. But remember that that’s how the problem began in Britain. It began with some small number of infected cows. Their parts were recycled into… through the meal to other cows, and that’s how the epidemic grew the way it did. It began with exactly these kinds of breaches in process.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Dr. Brown, you’re advising the FDA on this, too. Where do you come down on the state of the safety net, and what do you think– how do you think we have been successful so far in preventing it, and what more needs to be done?

DR. PAUL BROWN: There are really three things which have kept the US BSE-free, and ergo variant CJD-free. The first was simply fortuitous. Foot and mouth disease occurs here and there in the world and at the outskirts of Europe. And because of the fear that foot and mouth disease might enter this country, the USDA banned, in large measure, all imports of live cattle from Europe. A few were brought in, but….

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This is in the ’80s, the 1980s.

DR. PAUL BROWN: Right. This was in the ’80s. And those cattle have been slaughtered or are now quarantined. That was the first thing. The second thing is that the USDA and the FDA really got on top of this problem very quickly. In point of fact, because of a computing system that is present in this country, the BSE became a notifiable disease in this country before it even became a notifiable disease in Great Britain. ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I’m going to ask you to be brief because we’re almost out of time.

DR. PAUL BROWN: Those two reasons suffice.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What needs to be watched out for now? What concerns you now?

DR. PAUL BROWN: Well, I think what has been talked about– that is, vigilance in terms of imports of products from other countries. I don’t think we need to worry about a lot of products that have been mentioned in passing here. Cosmetics, for example, really are not a problem. Gelatin is really not a problem — not because of where they come from, but because the processing involved in making the products would eliminate the infective agent.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Dr. Lurie, on that?

DR. PETER LURIE: Well, I agree with all of that. I think we also need to expand the testing that we do of potentially infected cows. In this country, we’ve looked at the brains of about 12,000 cows since the beginning of the epidemic. Now that France has finally recognized its problem, they’re looking at 20,000 cows per week. So I think, as a senior USDA — Department of Agriculture — official told me, we would like to see an expansion of the ability to test cows in this country. Until we do so, I’m not going to be completely reassured.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Dr. Lumpkin, do you think that will happen?

DR. MURRAY LUMPKIN: Well, I can’t speak what will happen as far as to the Department of Agriculture. I think the points have been made that indeed this is an issue that requires tremendous vigilance on the part of many players in this particular issue whether it’s government, whether it’s the farmers, whether it’s people in the slaughterhouses. And I think you’re seeing that, and you’re seeing these incidents that are happening as reminders to us that this is an issue that will be with us in the global community for a while to come.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you all very much.