Two US regulatory agencies in August announced new efforts to protect US consumers from bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or "mad cow disease."

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) said that effective immediately it is requiring importers of pet food, lard, fish meal and other animal products to include documents certifying that the country of origin is free of mad cow disease and its human variant, vCJD.

Under the new rule, US importers must indicate where their animal product came from, how it was processed and handled, and what livestock it includes.

The agency is also considering whether to extend the new regulations to cover all beef, sheep and goat imports.

At the same time, US Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson unveiled that agency's plans to strengthen surveillance, increase research resources, and expand inspection efforts to prevent BSE. The effort will be coordinated with other government agencies.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will enhance its current program to identify and investigate possible cases of vCJD. FDA will review and expand import inspection programs to keep potentially infected food products out of the US, and its animal feed inspection program to prevent the use of mammalian protein in feed for ruminant animals such as cows and sheep. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) will more than double its current spending for research on transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs), including BSE and vCJD, by the end of fiscal year 2002.

Other news

Troubling news regarding another threat to the US meat industry, namely foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), came from the USDA's inspector general in August. That agency reported that US controls for FMD are inadequate because of antiquated record-keeping systems and poor communications between inspectors.

According to the report, a manual record-keeping system used by the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) "cannot reliably track the status of shipments" on hold at ports. The report also cited poor communications between APHIS, which enforces import regulations, and USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which is responsible for inspecting meat.

USDA officials said they are working to improve coordination between the inspection services and are looking into setting up a central computer system for tracking products that are being held at ports.

In another case of inter-agency coordination, USDA's FSIS announced plans to modify its approach to testing for chemical residues in meat and poultry - to be more consistent with FDA policy. FSIS said that it will begin to post a list of livestock or poultry sellers with repeat residue violations on its home page and will modify its policy by condemning entire animal carcasses if violative levels of chemical residue are found in target tissues.

Currently, FSIS reports residue violations to the FDA, which then investigates the violation and maintains a list of violators with more than one violation in a 12-month period. Also, FSIS condemns only the target tissue or organ that contains the high residue level. If no residue is found in muscle tissue, FSIS releases the muscle for consumption.

FSIS will now test only target tissues for which residue limits have been established by the FDA or EPA. If a target tissue test exceeds residue levels, the entire carcass will be condemned unless residue limits and a testing method specific to muscle tissue have been established. This change will be effective September 5, 2001.

In US trade relations news, Bush administration officials are asking the European Union (EU) to abandon its newly drafted restrictions on genetically modified foods.

The new standards call for all products made from engineered material to bear a label saying they contain "genetically modified organisms". They also require producers to document the source of all their ingredients. Since the US crop-handling system does not generally separate modified and conventional crops, US businesses consider the EU's new requirements impractical.

In a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell, USDA secretary Ann Veneman, US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, and 24 US trade organizations said the proposed EU guidelines on biotechnology in agriculture are "commercially unworkable, inconsistent with WTO obligations and would result in billions of dollars of lost US exports".

But European officials disagree, arguing that the Bush administration is trying to impose US acceptance of biotech food on a European public that does not believe these products are safe despite scientists' claims.

Appointments

John Henshaw has been named Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA). This is the agency in charge of setting workplace safety standards and any future ergonomic standards - an important issue for the food industry.

Prior to his nomination, Henshaw served as director for environment, safety and health at Astaris LLC, a joint venture between Solutia Inc. and FMC. From 1997 to 2000 he served in a similar position with Solutia Inc.

Check back next month for updates and new developments.

By Pam Ahlberg

Pam can be reached by email at: pahlberg@bellatlantic.net