State Journal Register

December 30, 2003

Durbin to renew push for tighter regulations

Copley News Service

WASHINGTON - Nearly two years ago, a congressional study determined that the federal government wasn't doing enough to keep mad cow disease out of the United States.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who was among the senators requesting that study, proposed legislation to tighten government regulations and improve the safety of domestic and imported meat products. He met with little success.

Now that a case of the disease has been discovered in the United States, Durbin suspects the political climate will be different.

"There's a built-in resistance by industry groups to change, particularly in the area of consumer safety," Durbin said. "I've been talking about this for a while. Unfortunately, one cow in Washington has been our best argument so far."

When Congress reconvenes in January, Durbin said, he plans to introduce a bill that would strengthen livestock feed standards, expand surveillance of suspicious outbreaks of neurological disorders in livestock, and tighten labeling requirements to clarify what can and can't be fed to livestock. Durbin also proposes requiring more detailed information on the type and origin of meat in imported products.

In February 2002, the General Accounting Office concluded that "federal actions do not sufficiently ensure" against infected animals and products entering the country and spreading to the human food supply. In particular, the GAO warned of weaknesses in import controls and lax enforcement of a ban on animal feed containing animal byproducts, which is considered a likely source of mad cow disease.

Officials with the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates animal feed, said enforcement has improved and that 99 percent of the nation's feed companies now comply with the ban. But Durbin and others believe the agency hasn't done enough.

The agency relies only on inspection of company records - not independent tests of the feed itself, Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine, said in an interview with the Associated Press.

Since 1997, the United States has banned the feeding of animal byproducts to cattle, sheep and goats. The disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is believed to be spread through brain and spinal cord matter.

On Monday, Agriculture Department officials said the Holstein infected with mad cow disease in Washington state was born four months before the United States and Canada began banning the use of animal byproducts. The animal was born in Canada in April 1997.

The incident is prompting renewed calls for legislation to ban the sale of meat from downed animals - too sick or injured to walk - for human consumption.

The Senate in July passed by voice vote an amendment by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, to an agriculture appropriations bill that would have barred funding for the inspection process by which such meat is approved for sale. The House defeated a similar amendment by Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., in a 202-199 vote.

U.S. Reps. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, and Lane Evans, D-Rock Island, voted against the ban. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria, did not vote on the issue.

Illinois Beef Association President Curt Rincker of Shelbyville said he supports the testing of all downed animals for mad cow disease. The meat should be held back from the marketplace until the results are known, he said.

"We're talking about a very low percentage of our cows that go to slaughter that are non-ambulatory. This will be a minimal cost with great benefits," said Rincker.

The first case of mad cow disease in this country has caused "quite a bit of concern" among Illinois' 17,000 beef producers, who send about 400,000 head of cattle to slaughter each year, he said. Like beef producers nationwide, Illinois producers had seen a 10 percent increase in beef sales in the past 10 years after decades of stagnant sales, Rincker said.

After the initial crisis response, the federal government will be forced to look at the long-term issues, said Durbin, a longtime critic of the fragmented nature of U.S. food safety programs.

"Once they start asking that, it's going to lead most people to where I've been for 10 years or more - arguing that the food safety agencies in the federal government are a bureaucratic nightmare," Durbin said. "That hasn't changed."