The Food and Drug Administration announced steps late Monday to close loopholes in its livestock feed ban — a key protection against spread of the brain-wasting disease in cattle — and to make sure that people don't consume risky animal parts in processed foods and supplements.
"Firewalls have been in place for many years," said FDA Commissioner Mark McClellan. "The steps we're taking today are intended to provide even greater security."
The government maintains the food supply is safe despite last month's discovery of an infected cow imported from Canada, because the animal's brain, spinal cord and certain other tissues — parts that carry the disease — were removed before the meat was processed.
Still, the Agriculture Department soon took steps to increase meat safety, including a meatpacking ban on so-called downer cattle like the infected Holstein and restrictions on mechanical slaughter techniques that could contaminate beef with nervous system tissue.
On Monday, the FDA made its own rules for processed food conform with those new restrictions to provide extra assurance that products like canned soups or frozen pizza won't be made with downer cattle or mechanically separated beef.
Also, cosmetics and dietary supplements can't be made with potentially infectious cow parts, FDA said. In recent years, some supplements have claimed to harbor cow brains.
But the United States' main defense against mad cow disease is a 1997 ban on giving cattle feed made from the protein or bone meal of sheep or certain other mammals — because that feed is considered the way the deadly disease originally spread in Britain and other countries.
Critics have long worried about some big loopholes: Cows could be fed blood from slaughtered cattle, usually as a milk replacement for calves. That exemption was allowed even though for years Americans possibly exposed to mad cow-tainted beef in other countries haven't been allowed to donate blood, for fear the disease could spread that way. Last month, the British government announced that a man who died from the human form of mad cow disease may have been infected through a transfusion.
Also, cow parts are allowed in pig and poultry feed — and until now, chicken waste could be swept up and added to cattle feed, meaning cows could indirectly be exposed.
Among FDA's actions are new rules for cattle feed that:
Prohibit mammalian blood and blood products from being fed to cattle or other ruminant animals.
Ban chicken waste from livestock feed.
Ban the use of uneaten meat and other scraps from large restaurants from being recycled into cattle feed.
Require factories that make both livestock feed and feed for other animals that uses bovine ingredients to have separate production lines to guard against accidental contamination.
To ensure the rules are followed, FDA this year will increase inspections of feed mills and renderers, conducting 2,800 inspections and contracting with states for an additional 3,800.
The agency's steps are an improvement but don't go far enough, said Caroline Smith DeWaal of the consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest. The main problem: Poultry and pigs can still eat feed made from cow remains, so what's to prevent a farmer from accidentally mixing up the feed?
"They have more protections, but when you get down to the farm level, mistakes can still happen," she said.
FDA's announcement came as Agriculture Department's chief veterinarian said he expects many of the infected Holstein's herdmates will never be found.
The department has been searching for 80 animals that were raised in Alberta, Canada, and shipped to the United States in 2001 with the Holstein that wound up in Mabton.
Veterinarian Ron DeHaven said officials now are focusing on what happened to 25 of the Canadian-born animals raised within a two-year window of the Holstein's birth, because they would be most likely to have eaten the same, possibly contaminated feed. Officials have located 14 of them, he said.