It was just one cow, one lame, worn-out Holstein dragged to slaughter in a corner of the country. But the discovery that she was infected with mad cow disease has forced broader scrutiny of the U.S. food supply.
Mad Cow Case Casts Light on Beef UsesBy Stephanie Simon, Times Staff Writer
The positive test, disclosed just before Christmas, has pulled back a curtain on the alchemistic processes that convert every last scrap of slaughtered livestock into ingredients for consumer products: marshmallows and cereal bars, dog food and poultry rations, lipstick and hand lotion and garden fertilizers, tires and yogurt and breath mints.
Federal officials and most outside experts continue to reassure the public that the risk from the one sick Holstein is extremely minimal — "virtually zero," according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
As the USDA has repeatedly noted, the mutant proteins, known as prions, that cause and transmit mad cow disease do not concentrate in the muscle tissue that provides steaks, roasts and ground beef. Instead, the deadly prions tend to group in the brain, spinal column, intestines and bone marrow.
Most Americans do not knowingly eat those parts of a cow. But in a process that is largely unregulated, the entire cattle carcass — including high-risk organs and tissues — is routinely recycled into edible fats, flavorings and thickeners used in a wide range of common products.
Freeze-dried bovine brains and other organs also turn up in dietary supplements sold in health-food stores.
And bits of spinal tissue or bone sometimes slip into the 45 million pounds of beef a year that is trimmed off carcasses in a mechanized process known as advanced meat recovery.
Humans can contract a form of mad cow disease known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease from eating infected animal products; the deadly prions cannot be killed by cooking, irradiation, sterilization or even chemical disinfectants. The illness, which can incubate silently, causing no symptoms for a decade or more, eats holes in the brain. It is always fatal; more than 150 people have died of it worldwide, most of them in Britain, where a mad cow epidemic ravaged herds in the 1980s.
To minimize the risk of infection from beef byproducts, the USDA announced several reforms last week. It will closely regulate mechanical meat stripping. Cattle intestines, where the prions may first take root, will no longer be allowed in the human food supply. The USDA is also banning consumption of brains and spinal cord from older cattle, which are most likely to be infected and infectious.
Up to 85% of the cattle slaughtered in the U.S. are young steers; their organs (except intestines) can still enter the food supply. Two recent cases of mad cow disease in young cattle have been confirmed in Japan. The brain-wasting disease is formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE.
The mad cow scare has exposed America's food supply as a complex chain ever twisting back on itself — a system in which nothing is wasted. The efficiencies help keep food cheap. They also solve a major environmental challenge; billions of pounds of animal brains, hides, bones, feathers and guts are used each year, rather than burned or buried.
"Our ancestors used everything but the moo, and we continue to try to do that," said Will Hueston, director of the Center for Animal Health and Food Safety at the University of Minnesota.
That efficiency, however, may open the door for contamination, since one carcass is turned into so many products and recycled through so many paths.
Any livestock carcasses that pass USDA inspection at the slaughterhouse — they are not necessarily tested for diseases but are visually examined — can enter the food supply.
Considered edible waste, the carcasses are processed into lard, beef tallow and gelatin; those ingredients are then used in a range of foods, from candy to canned ham, sour cream to frosting, lozenges to soups. Gelatin even turns up in the gel-caps used for some pharmaceuticals.
The Gelatin Manufacturers Institute of America says that most gelatin made for human consumption is prepared from pigskins, but it is also sometimes made from cattle bones.
The USDA exercises no oversight over the animal carcasses once they leave the slaughterhouse. That's supposed to be the job of the Food and Drug Administration.
The FDA inspects all 239 U.S. rendering plants annually — but only for the limited purpose of making sure that any animal feed containing cattle parts is clearly labeled. The agency does not audit the production of ingredients for human consumption. Nor does it check to ensure that gelatin, lard and tallow are made only from carcasses that have passed USDA inspection, said Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine.
Indeed, Sundlof said the agency's lawyers are still looking into whether the FDA has the authority to set standards for the types of animal waste used in the edible rendering process.
"We're still trying to look into what all comes out of that rendering stream," Sundlof said.
The FDA is also researching whether it has the authority to take steps to ensure the safety of unregulated dietary supplements. Popular pills known as "glandulars" — marketed to boost energy and libido — often contain concentrated extracts from cattle glands and organs, such as the pituitary gland, liver, testicles and brain.
Experts say that rendering does not kill the prions that spread BSE. But they also say that the chance of infection from any rendered product is extremely low.
Only the barest traces of cattle remains would be present in, say, canned soup or gummy candy. "I don't look at [rendered products] as being much of a risk at all" given that there's only been one infected cow found in this country so far, said Leon Thacker, director of the animal disease diagnostic lab at Purdue University.
The FDA says all rendered products traced to the Holstein infected with mad cow disease have been put on a "voluntary hold," meaning the factories that made them are not supposed to release them for sale.
Some consumers are not reassured.
"Now that I know the byproducts of cattle can be in almost anything, I'm going to start reading labels," said Humberto Retana, 33, a stay-at-home dad from Oakland.
Retana has been a vegetarian for more than a decade, steadfastly refusing the steaks his wife tries to tempt him with. But until the mad cow disease scare prompted him to start researching the meat industry, Retana had never realized how often he ate or used products made with rendered cattle parts.
"The notion that every last bit of the cow needs to be turned into some kind of profit is just extraordinary," Retana said.
If the edible rendering market is largely hidden from public view, the parallel practice of inedible rendering is even more obscure. Plants that deal with inedible rendering take in all the livestock that the USDA deems unfit for human consumption, including cows that died from unexplained causes on farms or arrive at slaughterhouses visibly ill, with tumors, wasted bodies, sunken eyes or clear neurological impairments. (Until a USDA reform last week, "downer" cattle, which cannot walk on their own, were still considered fit for human consumption as long as they didn't exhibit other signs of disease.)
Some inedible rendering plants also process dogs and cats that were euthanized in animal shelters, carcasses brought in by hunters, even road kill. They melt everything down at extremely high temperatures, sterilize it repeatedly and turn it into livestock feed, pet food, organic fertilizer and glycerine — an ingredient used in everything from crayons to cosmetics to toothpaste to fabric softener.
In 1997, the FDA acted on concerns that animal feed containing rendered cattle could rapidly, and disastrously, spread BSE. The mad cow disease outbreak that infected more than a million British cows in the 1980s was spread in just that manner.
So the U.S. began insisting that all animal feed containing rendered cattle be labeled. American farmers were allowed to feed it only to poultry and to swine — species that are not known to contract BSE through infected rations. (Pet food containing rendered cattle can also be legally fed to cats, even though felines are susceptible to a brain-wasting illness very similar to mad cow disease.)
Federal officials have repeatedly described the 1997 feed ban as a firewall protecting the U.S. from a Britain-style epidemic of mad cow.
But the system is not airtight.
A report a year ago by the congressional watchdog, the U.S. General Accounting Office, found flaws in the FDA's enforcement of the feed ban and widespread lapses at rendering plants and feed mills. The FDA says those problems have been fixed. Even so, some loopholes are built into the law.
For instance: When feed containing rendered cattle is given to poultry, some of it scatters on the floor as the birds peck at it. The floor is also thick with excrement, feathers, dirt and bits of straw. Rather than throw all that waste away, farmers sweep it up and recycle it — by selling it as cattle feed.
The FDA allows that practice, which is most common in the big chicken-producing states of the Southeast.
The ban on cattle eating cattle is circumvented in other ways too. It's legal to feed American cattle dry pet food that is past its expiration date. Yet that pet food is made from cattle carcasses. It's also legal to feed cattle supplements made from restaurant leftovers — including steaks and burgers.
And calves are routinely fed formula, meant to replace their mothers' milk, that is made from dried cattle blood.
Critics call it "the cannibalism circuit." Farmers reply that the practices not only prevent waste, they also save money — and keep food prices low.
A dairy cow, for instance, can more than double her milk output if she's fed high-protein supplements. The traditional bovine diet of grass doesn't provide enough calories for her to produce milk in the quantities that modern agriculture demands.
The FDA issued a public notice 14 months ago that it was considering restricting the use of poultry litter, pet food and restaurant leftovers as cattle feed. It has not yet acted. Sundlof said the agency was still accepting public comment on the notice.
"The challenge we face is that all these [practices] are tied together in one big system," Hueston said. "These are very complex issues, with social as well as biological and economic implications."
The issues clearly disturb some Americans; the animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals reported receiving 10,000 requests in the last week for its free "vegan starter kit." That's triple its normal call volume. Overall, though, consumers continue to eat as much beef as always. McDonald's, Burger King and other restaurants have reported no drop in sales. Interviews around the country confirm that most people are sticking with their favorite foods.
"We're beefeaters, end of story," said Steve McCarthy, who was downing brisket and sausage at a Houston barbecue joint last week.
In a public show of confidence in American cattle, Iowa Sen. Charles E. Grassley and North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven made it their New Year's resolutions to eat beef more often. Hoeven then invited Gov. Tim Pawlenty of neighboring Minnesota to dine with him at a restaurant of his choice — any restaurant, that is, where the menu features steak.
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