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Wednesday, July 07, 2004  

Health: Waiting for mad cow disease rules

Six months have passed since the federal government announced it would pass legislation to curb practices that result in mad cow disease. But, nothing has happened. Some observers began to express skepticism, doubting the Bush administration intended to enact the rules it initially opposed. (The beef industry also claimed that no changes to the status quo were needed.) But, perhaps the doubters are in error.

Today, after appearing indifferent to reform as recently as last week, the FDA announced it has changed its tune.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Food and Drug Administration later this week will publish details on long-delayed safeguards aimed at protecting the U.S. food and animal feed supply from mad cow disease, the agency's top official said on Wednesday.

"There's going to be a suite of them (rules) out this week," said acting FDA Commissioner Lester Crawford.

The FDA said on Jan. 26 it would ban animal blood in cattle feed, as well as ensure that dietary supplements and cosmetics are kept free of materials from "downer cattle" -- animals too sick or hurt too walk.

Those of us who have maintained an interest in the controversy were wondering if we would ever see results. The FDA's entrance into the situation after a cow from the Pacific Northwest was identified as suffering Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) was slow. Spokespersons first said the food supply was safe. Only later, after the practices that result in the malady, including feeding animal parts and feces to cattle, were publicized, was there a move away from defensiveness.

The Oregonian wrote about the rules that appeared to be a phantasm last week.

The measures -- among them a call to stop calves from being fed cow's blood -- were announced Jan. 26 by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson and then-FDA Commissioner Mark B. McClellan.

. . .At the time, the FDA said the rules would take effect upon publication in the Federal Register. But publication never happened.

FDA officials this week confirmed the rules had not taken effect. And a call Thursday to acting FDA Administrator Lester Crawford was referred to an agency spokeswoman who said she could not say when the new rules might be instituted.

That no new FDA protections are in place provokes concern among government officials and consumer advocates.

Consumer advocates fear the administration, never enthusiatic about changing the rules governing slaughter and usage of cattle, has been influenced by the industry to ignore the proposed changes now that the media has moved on to covering other controversies.

Carol Tucker Foreman, a former USDA assistant secretary and current director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America, referred this week to the "mysterious, disappearing rules" and criticized the FDA for being lax.

"It's not unusual for a department to say we're going to put out some proposed rules and then have some time pass," Foreman said. "But for the (Health and Human Services) secretary and the FDA commissioner to call a press conference to announce it and then to disappear from the face of the Earth is pretty . . . unusual and irresponsible."

Crawford's statement may be a response to that recent grumbling. However, even if the proposed legislation is enacted, it stops short of a reliable mad cow disease policy according to some. They support adopting the standards enacted in Europe.

The American measures will include:

•Restricting brains, spinal cords and other tissues known to harbor the highest concentrations of brain-destroying agents from FDA-regulated foods, dietary supplements and cosmetics.

•Prohibiting materials taken from dead or so-called "downer cattle" from FDA-regulated foods, dietary supplements and cosmetics.

•Ending the use of poultry litter collected in hen houses -- typically comprising feces and contaminated feed -- in cattle feed.

•Prohibiting the use of mammalian blood as a protein booster for young cattle.

We should know whether the FDA will act within a week.

6:45 PM