Food Supply Needs More Scrutiny

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A high-level centralized animal health authority is needed for the United States to confront a growing threat of illnesses like avian flu and mad cow disease that can spread from animals to humans, the National Research Council recommended in a study released Monday.

Dozens of local, state and federal agencies and private companies have responsibilities for animal health. A new authority is needed to encourage communication and cooperation between these groups, according to the council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences.

Diseases in animals can critically affect the worldwide food supply, the study said. In recent years several illnesses originating in animals have spread, including causing deadly infections in humans:

  • Severe acute respiratory syndrome appeared in 2003, infecting nearly 8,000 people in 30 countries and causing $8 billion in economic disruption.
  • Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, became a major problem in Britain and spread to other countries. It caused economic disruption when borders were closed to American beef after a single case was discovered in Washington state in 2003. A second U.S. has since occurred.
  • West Nile virus arrived in New York in 1999 and has since traveled across the continent carried by birds and mosquitoes. Last year alone there were 2,250 cases in 40 states.