The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) admitted at a public meeting yesterday that practically every product it regulates is susceptible to BSE contamination. The list of products is extensive, as cow products are utilised now only in food but also in drugs, medical devices, infant formulas, dietary supplements, vaccines, food additives and blood products.

To date, there has not been a confirmed case of mad cow disease in the US, but the devastation it has wreaked in Europe, where nearly 100 people have died from the human form of the disease, vCJD, has promoted consumer panic across the Atlantic.

As yet, there is still no test or treatment for the disease, which may incubate for many years in cows and humans. It causes sponge like holes in the brain, which lead to hallucinations, poor muscle coordination and problems hearing, seeing and smelling.

At a meeting to discuss the efforts to prevent the spread of BSE, the deputy commissioner for international constituent relations Sharon Smith Holston, explained the difficulties the FDA is facing: “It effects virtually every area of the agency.”

The most important thing is to keep the disease out of the national herd, but if US cattle are contaminated, the FDA has established rules to prevent BSE spreading. The director of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Stephen F. Sundlof, commented: “The disease is virtually exclusively spread by infected feed, which can be controlled.” Bans have also been imposed on animal feed that includes mammal cadavers.

Facilities that manufacture goods that may carry BSE are also being thoroughly inspected by the FDA and state health officials. The agency has recently completed 551 follow-up visits to plants that had not passed inspections before. 163 similar visits are still pending.
At the meeting, the senior medical adviser in the FDA’s office of the commissioner, Dr. Murray M. Lumpkin, admitted that “these are very, very vexing issues.” The message for attendees however was stressed by Paul W Brown, medical director at National Institutes of Health, who commented that the “vigorous prohibitions” established by the FDA and the USDA meant that the chances of BSE spreading to US consumers is “very close to zero.”