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Cattle Feed Rules Unchanged

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Early this year the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, fearing the spread of mad cow disease, made a highly publicized announcement of major changes to materials that can be fed to cattle.

But almost three months later, the rules have yet to be changed, and potentially dangerous materials can still legally be fed to cows.

The agency has yet to write or publish new rules. ''We're still working on it,'' FDA spokesman Brad Stone says. ''We don't have a set time frame. We hope it will come up very soon.''

Cattle can get the brain-wasting disease only by eating food that contains protein from infected bovines. People who eat infected materials can contract a human version that also is deadly.

Industry critics and scientists applauded when the FDA announced on Jan. 26 that it was going to get rid of three loopholes in the feed ban it enacted in 1997 to protect the U.S. cattle supply from bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

One was the practice of feeding poultry litter to cattle, because poultry feed can include cattle remains. Another was feeding them restaurant-plate waste, which might contain beef. And another was giving feed and formula made from the blood of ruminants (cattle, sheep and goats) to cattle and calves.

Stone says that although the rules don't go into effect until they're published in the Federal Register, ''the purpose of our announcement was to give a strong indication of the fact that this is a practice on its way out. We anticipate that that's a message that was received by the industry.''

Not so, says Rex Runyan of the American Feed Industry Association. ''It's business as usual until they publish those rules. I don't know of any companies that have made any major changes based on rumors or speculation.''

''There's significant work being done on these FDA regulations . . . at the White House level,'' says Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. ''The Bush administration is catering to industry concerns.''

Smith DeWaal notes that the USDA implemented its own preventive measures -- including keeping disabled cows out of the food supply -- eight days after the discovery of the first U.S. case of mad cow. ''FDA isn't writing a regulation out of whole cloth here; they're merely strengthening and amending an existing one.''

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