In the wake of the December discovery of a cow infected with mad cow disease, the Food and Drug Administration on Monday announced broad changes to its rules on cattle feed, banning such things as cow blood, chicken litter and restaurant table scraps in an effort to prevent the spread of the disease.
The FDA also prohibited a range of high-risk cattle products, from sick and dead cows to brain and spinal tissue from cattle, from being used to make cosmetics and dietary supplements for humans. Such products are already banned from human food.
The measures were announced on the eve of a hearing on mad cow disease before the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee. The new rules seek to close loopholes in a 1997 rule that prohibited cows and other ruminants from being ground up and turned into cattle feed, considered to be a crucial firewall protecting the public against mad cow disease.
The brain-wasting disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, is typically spread when cows eat brain matter and spinal tissue from infected cows. Similarly, eating infected cattle parts causes the human form of the disease, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
"Today we are bolstering our BSE firewalls to protect the public," FDA Commissioner Mark McClellan said in a statement. "We are further strengthening our animal feed rule, and we are taking additional steps to further protect the public from being exposed to any potentially risky materials from cattle."
Consumer advocates have pushed for the changes for years, saying the 1997 feed ban was a good step but included loopholes that could allow the disease to spread to cattle and humans.
"It's a step forward, but it's still not good enough," said Michael Hansen, a food safety expert at the nonprofit Consumers Union. "They still need to close down the indirect pathway that allows cattle to be ground up and fed to pigs and chickens."
Hansen argued that research suggests that even though the disease may not affect pigs and chickens, they could spread it back to cattle if they are rendered into cattle feed.
Similarly, John Stauber, co-author of the book Mad Cow U.S.A., said the United States needs to further strengthen its feed ban and begin testing millions of cattle for mad cow disease.
"Anything less is still too little and way too late," he said.
Cattle blood is sometimes used as a protein enhancer for calves, and the new FDA regulation will prohibit feeding to cattle any blood from mammals because recent research suggests mad cow disease may spread through blood.
The ban on feeding poultry litter to cows was imposed because chicken feed may contain groundup cow parts. Poultry litter includes bedding from chicken houses, spilled feed, feathers and fecal matter. The FDA banned plate scraps because grinding up steaks and cheeseburgers and turning them into animal feed circumvents the agency's ban on feeding cow parts back to cattle.
Also, the Department of Agriculture said Monday that officials probably will not find all the animals that were part of the infected cow's birth herd because of poor recordkeeping and the likelihood that some have already been slaughtered. The infected cow is believed to have eaten contaminated feed on an Alberta farm where it was born in 1997.
In the month since the USDA announced the discovery of mad cow disease in Washington state, investigators have been searching for 80 other cows shipped to the United States with the infected cow. To date, investigators have found 27 cows from the birth herd.