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Beef Industry's Dirty Little Secret

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Beef Industry's Dirty Secret:

U.S. Lags on Safety Standards

When a mad cow was found in Canada last week, the government and cattle industry were quick to play down the risk to the rest of us.

That's understandable. After all, the known risks of contracting mad-cow disease are immeasurably small -- one cow in Canada doesn't change that. In addition, if you're listing the risks associated with eating beef, you would have to put heart disease and colon cancer well above mad-cow disease.

But don't chow down on that burger just yet. The discovery of the first North American mad cow in a decade sheds light on a dirty secret of the American beef industry: The U.S. and Canada have yet to adopt the strictest mad-cow safety standards embraced in Europe and elsewhere. The practice of grinding up animals and feeding them to other animals -- believed to be the way mad-cow disease spread to humans in the first place -- still goes on in North America. As a result, the risk of mad cow finding its way into the U.S. may not be quite as low as the beef industry would like people to believe.

So does this mean we should all stop eating beef? Probably not. But it does make sense to educate yourself about mad-cow disease and the ways you can further lower your risk. Here are some answers that can help.

What does a mad cow in Canada have to do with U.S. beef? The government and cattle industry have been quick to point out that the sick cow was in another country. But the U.S. and Canadian cattle industries are inextricably linked: The U.S. imported 1.7 million head of Canadian cattle last year. And the one billion pounds of Canadian beef we import account for about 4% of U.S. beef consumption.

Also, while it's true that no mad cow has been found on U.S. soil, a similar disease has been found here in deer, elk and mink.

How does mad cow spread? Mad cow likely is spread by an infectious agent called a prion, largely found in the brain and spinal cord of a diseased animal. The disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), bores holes into the animal's brain and is always fatal. In humans, the disease, known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease or vCJD, is equally fatal. It's believed the disease spread because cattle were fed the recycled remains of infected sheep and cattle.

But didn't the U.S. ban those feeding practices? Yes, but loopholes remain. The ban means cattle, sheep, goats and deer can't be given feed that contains protein made from similar animals.

But these animals still can be turned into food for chickens, pigs and pets. Chicken and pigs can still be fed back to cattle. And bovine blood is still fed to calves. All this means it's still theoretically possible for a U.S. cow to consume infected material. In other countries, the practice of recycling animals for feed is banned altogether.

A scathing report from the General Accounting Office last year found the Food and Drug Administration had done a lousy job enforcing the limited ban. The office found cases where firms repeatedly failed to properly label feed that contained the banned protein. They sometimes continued to include the banned proteins in cattle feeds.

Federal officials say enforcement agencies have since stepped up their monitoring of mad-cow safety rules. The USDA has criticized the GAO report, saying it failed to take into account a Harvard study the USDA funded, which found the risk of BSE occurring in the U.S. is extremely low. "The public health threat in the United States from BSE is vanishingly small," FDA Deputy Commissioner Lester Crawford says.

Aren't the riskiest parts of the cow kept out of the food supply? Not always. Cow brains, spinal cords and central-nervous-system tissue pose the highest risk. Cow brains, banned in Europe, still are sold in the U.S. In addition, cuts of meat with bone, such as a T-bone steak, are stripped directly from the animal's vertebrae and may contain portions of the spinal cord.

Finally, some plants use high-pressure water and air or scraping methods to remove meat bits off a cow carcass. The recovered bits are added to hotdogs and low-quality hamburger. A USDA survey last year found more than one-third of products that contained this type of meat also contained some central-nervous-system tissue. In March, the USDA announced a stepped-up monitoring program aimed at keeping spinal-cord tissue out of meats. But critics want this meat-recovery method banned entirely, as it has been in Britain.

Aren't animals in this country tested for mad cow? The U.S. tests far fewer animals than do many countries. Last year, 20,000 U.S. cattle were tested, three times more than the previous year. But in Europe, they test more than 20,000 animals a day. Japan tests every bovine that enters the food supply. U.S. officials note testing here far exceeds standards required for a country where mad cow has never been found. Critics contend it isn't enough. "You can't find what you're not looking hard enough for," says Michael Greger, BSE coordinator for the Organic Consumers Association.

Are there less-risky ways to eat beef? If you're worried, avoid meat-on-bone products like t-bone steak, as well as hamburgers, hotdogs and sausage. Instead, eat only whole, boneless cuts. For hamburger, ask a trusted butcher to grind steak for you, or grind it at home. Many experts suggest avoiding venison altogether. Organic meats are an option, because they should come from farms where animals are fed only grains and grasses.

• E-mail me at healthjournal@wsj.com.

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