No cases of mad cow disease have been found in U.S. cattle despite intense monitoring. The FDA stressed the violations don't mean the food supply was tainted.
But armed with results from feed-mill inspections, the FDA is warning that companies could face seizures, shutdowns, even prosecution if they continue to violate rules meant to keep American livestock from eating slaughtered-animal parts linked to the deadly brain disease.
Many companies in violation already have received warning letters, and some feed has been recalled.
"Today's food is safe," because slaughterhouse inspections have found no suspicion of mad cow disease, FDA veterinary chief Dr. Stephen Sundlof said Thursday.
But the rules are important in case the illness ever appears. Europe's mad-cow crisis "is not a result of them not having adequate regulations in place, it was a problem of enforcement. And we don't want to end up like that," Sundlof added, promising more intense inspections.
The report comes a week before the FDA, warily watching Europe's deepening mad cow crisis, also is scheduled to debate strengthening regulations on blood donation meant to keep a human version of the disease from ever striking here.
Fear over mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, arose in the mid-1990s when Britain discovered a new version of the human Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease apparently was caused by eating infected beef. About 80 people have died of the new CJD disease in Britain since then, and now France, Germany and other European countries are grappling with infected livestock.
Animals get the disease by eating the tissue of other infected animals, and British cows are thought first to have been infected by eating feed made from sheep harboring a similar illness.
So the U.S. livestock industry in 1996 voluntarily banned sheep and certain other animal parts from U.S. animal feed. The next year, the FDA formally banned any proteins from cows, sheep, goats, deer or elk animals that get similar brain-wasting diseases from feed for cows, sheep or goats. Poultry or pigs can still eat those proteins, but feed must be labeled "do not feed to cows or other ruminants" and companies must have systems to prevent accidentally mixing up the feeds.
Yet FDA inspections found:
- Of 180 renderers companies that turn slaughtered animal parts into meat and bone meal that handle risky feed, 16 percent lacked warning labels and, worse, 28 percent had no system to prevent feed mixups.
- Of 347 FDA-licensed feed mills that handle risky feed, 20 percent lacked warning labels and 9 percent lacked mixup-prevention systems.
- Of 1,593 unlicensed feed mills that handle risky feed, almost half lacked warning labels and 26 percent lacked mixup-prevention systems. (FDA only licnses mills that add medications to feed; unlicensed mills are legal but unused to FDA rules.)
States are helping FDA inspect the companies, and hundreds are left to inspect. But Sundlof pledged Thursday that every company will be inspected.
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