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A day after the federal government assured people that the nation's meat supply is safe, critics said the first apparent case of mad cow disease discovered in the United States is the result of a flawed industrialized food system.
Since 1997, the government has created a firewall to prevent an outbreak of the disease. The Food and Drug Administration banned the use of dead ruminants -- sheep, goats and cows -- in feed intended for live ruminants. Also, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it tested more than 20,000 cows for the disease last year.
But critics say there isn't enough enforcement of the ban, the tests are lacking and that cows are still feeding on their own kind.
"This has been an ongoing problem for a long time. ... This was just an accident waiting to happen," said Lester Friedlander, a former USDA veterinarian and federal whistle-blower who left the job in 1995.
He estimated there are 120 million U.S. cows and that 20,000 brain samples is "nothing." He also said downer cows -- those that are non-ambulatory -- should not be slaughtered for human consumption.
Dr. Michael Greger, a public health expert who advises the Organic Consumers Association on mad cow disease, said calves are separated from their mothers and fed a "milk replacer," which often contains spray-dried, red blood cells from cows. This is done to save dairy cows' milk for human consumption.
"By continuing to feed cow blood to cows, we're creating the cannibalism circuit that these prions love so much," he said. Prions are the infecting agents that cause mad cow disease.
Cattle also are exposed potentially to tainted feed through chickens, which feast on cow remnants in their own feed and are then incorporated into feed for bovines, he said.
One local veterinarian, however, said chickens, as well as pigs, are not susceptible to the agents that cause the disease.
In Colorado, Sue Jarrett, a beef cattle operator, said the Agriculture Department doesn't adequately enforce the feed ban. She said most of the feed on the market contains an "animal byproduct" and that she doesn't trust the government to ensure that the byproduct isn't bone and meat from ruminants.
"Nobody's enforcing (the ban)," said Jarrett, who owns 150 head of cattle. "Who's out there checking?"
Jarrett is a consultant for a national group of mostly family farmers concerned about industrialized farming practices. Yesterday, the group condemned the practice of implanting cattle with hormones and feeding them antibiotics and "dead farm animals."
"Mad cow disease is a red flag that exposes the deadly flaws employed by our broken food system," Karen Hudson, a consultant for the group, said in a written statement. The group is called GRACE, which stands for Global Resource Action Center for the Environment.
The practice of feeding meat and bone meal to cattle is rare, said Clive Gay, a veterinary medicine professor at Washington State University and director of the field disease investigation unit. He also said there is no evidence that a cow has contracted the disease from eating feed that included dead chickens that had eaten diseased cows.
Patti Brumbach, executive director of the Washington State Beef Commission, reassured the public that the meat supply is safe. "We have the firewalls in place. ... The feed ban is there. We don't import from countries that are high-risk for BSE."
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