TOPICS > Health

Mad Cow

December 29, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST


GWEN IFILL: Now, the latest on the mad cow scare. Today the Agriculture Department confirmed that meat from an infected cow slaughtered on Dec. 9 was distributed to stores in eight states and Guam. Eighty percent of that meat was sold in the states of Oregon and Washington.

But government officials also said the risk of eating tainted meat was “near zero,” since the infected tissues of the cow had been removed prior to slaughter. They also said the cow appeared to have been born in Canada, and that it was 6-and-a-half years old.

RON DE HAVEN, U.S. Department of Agriculture: The age of the animal is especially important in that it is a likely explanation as to how this animal would have become infected. She would have been born before feed bans were implemented in North America, as the feed bans in the U.S. and Canada both went into effect in August of 1997, and as I mentioned records would now indicate that this animal was born in April of 1997.

GWEN IFILL: Those feed bans prohibit the use of cattle remains in cattle feed. For more on the investigation and its impact, I’m joined by George Gray, the executive director of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, and Dennis Laycraft, the executive vice president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association. Mr. Laycraft, how significant from your point of view was this outbreak?

DENNIS LAYCRAFT: Well, we’ve been living, of course, with an animal that was found on May 20. It’s really created quite a disaster for our industry, more from the border closures and what most Canadians believe was sort of the unfair reaction of trading partners. Of course as we came into December here and the second animal was found in the U.S., of course, that started a broader range of trade closures that have limited access to the U.S. to a number of markets.

Now, as we’ve gone through this, there’s preliminary indications. They believe the animal may have come from Canada. That, of course, is important as we take a look at things like the age of the animal and potentially the source of feed that the animal received either in Canada or in the United States.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Laycraft, there was apparently some concern in Canada about that assertion that the United States made over the weekend. Do you have reason to believe or do you believe that the cow came from Canada?

DENNIS LAYCRAFT: Well, what we found in our investigation is it’s really important to do all of the work to confirm the information and obviously DNA is very important. At the end of the day what we all want to do is be certain that we know where this animal was born, where it had moved to and, of course, the most item to determine if during its life it was exposed to infected feed.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Gray your specialty is risk analysis. How much of a risk really does this single cow that we know of so far, infected cow, pose?

GEORGE GRAY: Well, this is almost exactly the question the USDA came to us in 1998 with when they said what would happen if mad cow disease got into the United States? Our analysis showed that even if dozens of mad cows got into the United States that the spread of the disease was quite minimal.

There were a few more cases over the next 20 years or so and human exposure was pretty low so what this tells me finding one case is a reason for concern but it’s certainly not any kind of reason for widespread alarm about animal health or public health.

GWEN IFILL: In your learned opinion watching the reactions of countries around the world closing their borders to U.S. beef, you think that’s been an overreaction?

GEORGE GRAY: Well, in some ways this has been the pattern over time as more … each new country has found the disease, their response has always been shut off the borders first, ask questions later.

In many ways we’re simply seeing everyone doing the same thing to us that’s been done to all of the others. I think that this is a situation where in time we’ll work this out and find a way to trade and to make distinctions to countries like the United States and Canada that one or two or three or four cases and countries that have a thousand cases and countries like the U.K. where there were over 100,000 cases. It will take us a little time to work out how to work with this in the trade world.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Laycraft, when the single cow was found in Canada in May, what changed after that? What action was taken in the cattle industry and with the government?

DENNIS LAYCRAFT: Well, I think first of all we went in to what is described as the most thorough investigation that had ever been done in a matter of three weeks and with it there was also described by an international panel as a model to be emulated in terms of the very open nature of the investigation, and I think that’s partially changed how the world will handle this.

During that period of time our consumers really were informed about what was happening and they held their confidence. In fact during July and August we actually saw an increase in consumption as our consumers responded to help our industry and really felt our industry was being unfairly treated by the bans on trade.

We also during July introduced a policy which confirmed what was normal in practice, and that was to remove the risk material or referred to as specified risk material where on the various ages of animals under 30 months you remove a portion of the small intestine and over 30 months of age where you start to get into a higher probability of risk with animals, you remove all the central nervous tissue from the animal, from the food supply as well as the small portion of the small intestine.

GWEN IFILL: Is there any way of knowing whether this latest case if it indeed can be traced definitively back to Canada is linked in any way to the earlier case last May?

DENNIS LAYCRAFT: Well, again that’s what a good investigation probes into. We have considerable experience in a wide range of disease investigations that we’ve been very successful in this country over the past 25 years of eradicating diseases. I’m very confident in the skills of our Canadian food inspection agency to do a proper analysis of this and we’ll … if there are answers to be found we’ll find those answers.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Gray today the Agriculture Department said that it was near zero chance that humans, that Americans, anybody, could contract this disease from eating tainted meat. Is it possible at this stage to say something that definitive about the risk here?

GEORGE GRAY: Well, this is something that’s actually been looked at with some nice scientific experiments. And the best that we know is that the parts of a cow that we usually use, the meat, the milk have been tested and tested and they’re not able to transmit mad cow disease.

As far as we know the tissues to worry about are exactly the ones we’ve been discussing — a bit of the small intestine but primarily it’s the central nervous system tissue the brain and the spinal cord. And if those were taken out of the human food supply as USDA says they were, the risk to people is really quite small.

Our analysis showed again that even if there were dozens of mad cows in the United States human exposure to those tissues is pretty small because of the way in which we eat brain and spinal cords aren’t large food items in the United States and because we have a variety of directions and directives in place that keep those from contaminating other parts of the food supply.

GWEN IFILL: Why not just to put people’s minds at ease impose more stringent testing as they have in places like Japan?

GEORGE GRAY: I think it’s important to think about these things. Our analysis shows that the risk is very, very low. There are things that could be done to make a low risk even lower. And I really think that we’ll be seeing a lot of those evaluated other the next couple of months.

I think that will range from things that look at ways to identify animals that might have the disease and what I’m most interested in and I think is potentially the most important are things to stop the spread of the disease.

In some ways what’s most important from a public health perspective and an animal health perspective is preventing these disease from spreading. That means enforcing the feed ban that we have, making sure people are following the rules so even if the disease is around it can’t be transmitted from one cow to another.

GWEN IFILL: The Agriculture Department says there is 99 percent compliance of this feed ban. If that’s true, then what you’re saying is already being done.

GEORGE GRAY: It’s being done but one of the things we have to do is make sure that the people who are complying are the ones that really matter.

One of the concerns is that by looking at rates of compliance you’re looking at numbers of facilities not the amount of feed that they make. I think this is a wake-up call.

I think this will get the industry; this will get the government to focus on making sure that that feed ban works properly. If it does we don’t have mad cow spread. If there’s not mad cows, there’s not risk to humans.

GWEN IFILL: How about that, Mr. Laycraft, do you think that this is a wake-up call and further measures need to be taken on both sides of our borders?

DENNIS LAYCRAFT: Well, any time you’re dealing with food safety constant vigilance is important. And as we discover any new developments in the science around this, it’s important that we constantly refine our measures but I think it’s also important to realize North America, particularly Canada and the United States have been implementing these measures really as they become understood.

We started with measures in the late ’80s, early ’90s. We added the feed ban and were two of the first countries in the world to do that in ’97. And as we’ve moved ahead, we’ve progressed with each scientific development. So we remain very confident about the safety of the product and of course it’s just good business and it’s just the right thing to do to constantly evaluate these measures.

GWEN IFILL: The premiere of Alberta said today he believes that this is such an integrated market between Canada and the United States that we should be treating this as a North American problem not as a problem from one country to another. What’s your sense of that?

DENNIS LAYCRAFT: Well, clearly we’ve traded millions of head of cattle back and forth hundreds of thousands of tons of products and millions of tons of feed back and forth so it really is an integrated market.

We work very closely with our U.S. counterparts and our regulatory departments work very closely together. When you take a look at the robust systems in North America I think they’re very strong and they’re multiple hurdle systems so that as you have, A, the measures to prevent the introduction and then you have measures to prevent the spread and then you go the next step and further remove the risk by removing the materials that might provide some risk. Working together makes absolute sense.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Gray, if that’s the case for Canada and the United States, how about the United States and other countries, this idea of working together?

GEORGE GRAY: Well I think that’s very important. I think that following up on science is a way we’re going to do this. We had proposed at the end of October in fact to open the border to Canadian beef based on steps that they had taken and the scientific assessment of what the risks were.

I think that that’s the kind of thinking that we’re going to have to see around the world as we deal with this disease and we try to make trade work while also still protecting the food supply and protecting human health.

GWEN IFILL: George Gray and Dennis Laycraft, thank you both very much.

DENNIS LAYCRAFT: You’re very welcome.