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"If an animal has Mad Cow Disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)," said David Schardt, associate nutritionist with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, "its brain is the tissue most likely to be infected. While BSE has never been detected in U.S. cattle, it is critical that industry institute every safeguard possible."
Schardt co-authored an article in the current issue of Nutrition Action Healthletter detailing the potential BSE problem. CSPI, which publishes the newsletter, has asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the meat industry to work together to plug this newly discovered gap in the "firewall" against Mad Cow Disease.
Tam Garland, a research veterinarian at Texas A&M University, told Nutrition Action, "Our research shows that it's possible that microscopic particles of brain matter can be circulated to the lungs, liver, and maybe other sites. Brain tissue could, in theory, circulate anywhere. The implications are frightening."
Graham Clarke, chief of red-meat inspection for the Canadian government's Food Inspection Agency, agreed, telling Nutrition Action: "The force (of pneumatic stunning) is so explosive that it splatters brain tissue into the cow's blood vessels."
Joining CSPI at a Washington press conference, the American Meat Institute (AMI) and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) announced that they will sponsor a study to further identify and eliminate the potential risks related to stunning cattle. They will ask USDA to approve the study's design.
Scientists suspect that at least 18 cases of a new form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease -- a rare incurable brain disease -- developed after victims in Great Britain and France ate contaminated meat from cattle with BSE.
"Now, before Mad Cow Disease is found in U.S. cattle, is the time to prevent the human food supply from becoming contaminated," said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. "To protect the American public from this frightful disease, the government must ensure that brain and spinal tissues are kept out of our food completely."
"We advised the industry of the discovery that slaughtering practices could result in the brain tissue being incorporated into meat. Both the American Meat Institute and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association have reacted quickly and responsibly. They are sponsoring a study that will identify humane, alternative slaughter methods that will eliminate this potential risk of exposing consumers to BSE."
DeWaal said CSPI has asked Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman to help ensure that the studies are of the highest quality by "fully reviewing the protocols and implementation of the studies." She noted that the U.S. government has already erected other firewalls to keep BSE out of the human food supply. The Food and Drug Administration has forbidden the addition of mammalian remains to cattle feed, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture directed the meat industry to eliminate spinal cord in mechanically deboned meat, which is often added to ground beef.
Janet Collins, AMI Vice President for Science and Technology, said: "The Humane Slaughter Act requires that cattle are stunned prior to slaughter in order to make them instantly insensitive to pain. Thus stunning is not only a humane practice, it is also mandated by law -- except for Kosher slaughter, which makes up a small percentage of U.S. beef. It is critical that this required process be completely safe."
Collins said the AMI Foundation "will soon launch a new research project with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association to determine whether U.S. humane stunning practices could present any unintentional safety hazard. Our study protocol will be reviewed by government officials in the U.S. and Canada."
"If a problem is found," she said, "either with stunning in general or with particular methods or machinery, we will move swiftly to address it. Our project is expected to begin in September and to conclude by late November or early December."
"No one wants the U.S. to remain BSE-free more than the nation's one million beef producers," said Gary Weber, NCBA executive director of regulatory affairs. "A top priority for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association is to develop science-based methods to ensure that beef remains safe and wholesome and that animals remain healthy.
"America's beef producers are committed to working with the government and with industry partners to develop and fund research to determine if processing methods and technologies need to be improved to provide additional assurance of beef safety," he said. "If scientific research indicates that changes are needed in processing, we are committed to making those changes."
"Mad Cow Disease has left a trail of fear, death, and enormous economic losses in Great Britain and other European countries," Schardt said. "We are here today to help prevent a similar catastrophe from occurring in the U.S."
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), based in Washington, D.C., is a nonprofit health-advocacy organization. It is supported largely by the 900,000 subscribers to its Nutrition Action Healthletter and does not accept government or industry funding. CSPI was a major proponent of last year's improvements in meat and poultry inspection. The organization is well-known for obtaining nutrition labeling on packaged foods and for its nutritional studies of restaurant foods.
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