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US consumer groups see holes in mad-cow "firewall"

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WASHINGTON, Apr 18 (Reuters) One of the main safeguards against mad cow disease, a ban on using cattle parts in cattle feed, is ineffective or is not enforced strictly, two US consumer groups said on Monday in light of a new case of the fatal bovine ailment in Canada.

Both groups urged more stringent rules on the ingredients allowed in livestock feed and stronger enforcement of the existing feed ban.

''The feed ban is not a firewall,'' said Michael Hansen of Consumers Union yesterday. Canada's three most recent cases of mad cow disease involved cattle born after U.S. and Canadian rules against using cattle parts in feed were announced in 1997.

Government officials often describe the feed ban as one of the two primary safeguards against mad cow disease, which is believed to be spread through contaminated feed. The other is a requirement for meatpackers to remove from older cattle the brains, spinal cords and other nervous tissue most at risk of containing the disease's infective agent.

Canada's latest case, confirmed on Sunday, was a six-year-old purebred Holstein dairy cow in British Columbia.

Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest said the new Canadian case suggested ''there was probably contaminated feed being served to cattle in the early 2000s, so enforcement of the feed ban may not have been effective in Canada.'' ''The feed ban is only as good as its enforcement,'' DeWaal said, in drawing a conclusion for US regulators. ''If they fail to enforce the feed ban in the factories and on the farms ... then we'll see more animals'' with mad cow disease.

An Agriculture Department spokesman, Ed Loyd, responded, ''We said very publicly from the beginning that as we work with Canada we anticipated that there would be additional cases of (mad cow).'' In an email, Loyd said the results of the investigation of the new Canadian case ''will be significant in that it will provide additional information about how this animal might have become exposed and to consider how it might affect our risk assessment of Canada.'' Canada ships beef from younger cattle to US markets and sends animals under the age of 30 months for slaughter in the United States.

Hansen and DeWaal said the United States should tighten its feed rule, which is now undergoing a review. They also called on the Food and Drug Administration to ban the use of chicken litter, table scraps and cattle blood in livestock feed.

DeWaal lamented FDA is resisting the call by consumer groups to require feed makers to restrict equipment, or even entire mills, to making feed for specific species.

Last fall, FDA proposed banning the brains and spinal cords of older cattle from use in livestock feed. A senior FDA official said those items contained ''90 percent of any infectivity that may be present'' so other steps were not needed.

US officials say their most recent case, reported in mid-March, was a beef cow in Alabama that was born 10 years ago, before the ban.

Reuters SHB GC1103

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