Elizabeth Weise of USA TODAY says the food industry held its breath this year. The dawn of 2004 followed the grim discovery of the first case of mad cow disease in the USA:
This was a year of reaction and preparation for those who are responsible for keeping the food supply safe. While continuing efforts to curtail disease outbreaks from such sources as E. coli and salmonella, health authorities and food safety regulators faced the mad cow threat and concerns about bioterrorism.
A dreaded disease
After the deadly brain-wasting disease known to scientists as bovine spongiform encephalopathy was found in a Washington state dairy cow just before Christmas last year, countries that had long been U.S. trading partners closed their borders to American beef. The meat industry reeled.
Mad cow disease is particularly feared because it is incurable and always fatal.
But no new cases were found this year, even after the Department of Agriculture launched an intensive program to test as many as 268,000 cattle from June 2004 to November 2005.
Though testing increased, one thing that did not happen was the implementation of stricter regulations on what can be fed to cattle. Feed that contains ground-up parts of infected animals is the primary means of transmission.
The Food and Drug Administration said in January that it would ban the feeding of cattle blood to calves and the litter from poultry cages to cattle. Both the materials end up in feed, even though they are potential contaminants. But both practices are still allowed.
The FDA’s position is that because the USDA now requires the removal of all “specified risk materials” – the parts known to carry the mad cow infection – from slaughtered cattle, there is no longer any danger from having the remaining cattle parts in feed.
But food safety experts protest that the removal of risk materials is not 100% effective. “There are more holes in their regulations on specified risk materials than there are in a mad cow’s brain,” says Carol Tucker Foreman of the Consumer Federation of America.
The specter of bioterrorism
The other major food safety issue was marked by incremental changes and a splash of drama.
This month, the FDA published the last of its four bioterrorism regulations. This was the last of new powers given to the FDA by Congress after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent deaths of five people from exposure to anthrax-laced envelopes sent through the mail.
The fear is that terrorists will try to contaminate the food supply. Already in place are rules requiring the registration of food producers, prior notice of when food will be imported and impoundment of food that producers or importers fear could be dangerous.
The fourth measure requires companies to begin keeping records within 12 months that will allow U.S. officials to trace the source of food contamination.
The rules apply to firms that manufacture, process, pack, transport, distribute, receive, hold or import food.
The drama came when Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, in announcing his resignation on Dec. 3, commented, “For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do.”
President Bush dismissed the warning and said, “We’re doing everything we can to protect the American people.” Bush nominated the Environmental Protection Agency’s Mike Leavitt to succeed Thompson.
A new chapter
The year also saw the departure of Elsa Murano, the USDA’s food safety chief. She began in September 2001 and left this month to become the dean of the College of Agriculture at Texas A&M University.
Murano points out with pride that the number of USDA food recalls, which had been going up since the mid-1990s, has finally begun to come down. There were 113 food recalls in 2003, 68 in 2003 and, as of Dec. 12, 47 in 2004.