Weaknesses in import controls and lax enforcement of animal feed rules could allow mad cow disease to gain a toehold in this country, said congressional investigators on Feb. 26, 2002.

Currently, the government bans the import of meat and livestock from countries where mad cow disease has been found, and prohibits the feeding of meat and bone meal to U.S. cattle. However, a report issued by the General Accounting Office says the Food and Drug Administration has failed to take action against feed mills and other firms that violate rules associated with the feed ban. In addition FDA has never identified all of the businesses that should be inspected. Even more detrimental is the fact that FDA's database of inspection records "is so severely flawed" that "it should not be used to assess compliance," the investigators said.

Their report also says that imports of meat and other products that can carry the disease could be entering the country through mail or cargo due to mislabeled shipments and a shortage of inspectors.

"The continuing absence of (mad cow disease) in the United States today cannot be sufficiently ensured by current federal prevention efforts," the report said.

“While we support the GAO’s efforts to examine ways to strengthen the government’s ongoing efforts to prevent BSE, the report fails to appropriately recognize the conclusions and recommendations made last year by Harvard University in it’s comprehensive, 3-year study on BSE,” says Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman in response to the GAO report. “We have concerns that despite extensive comments on the draft report, the GAO did not correct the scientific and technical errors that appear in the final report. As well, in examining recommendations, the GAO report does not appropriately consider the additional actions that have been taken by federal agencies to strengthen BSE programs.”

Mad cow, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is linked to a brain-wasting disease in humans and has killed about 100 people in Europe. Researchers believe the disease is spread through eating brain or nerve tissue from infected animals.

FDA outlawed the feeding of mammalian meat and bone meal to cattle, sheep and goats in 1997 and imposed a series of rules on recordkeeping, labeling and handling of feed. It said it has taken time to develop the enforcement program and that it is correcting problems. Improvements in the system "will make the present small risk of introduction and spread (of mad-cow disease) even smaller," the agency said.

A Harvard University study last year said it was "extremely unlikely" that mad cow could ever take hold in U.S. herds, mainly because of the ban on feeding them meat and bone meal. However, the researchers said there are additional steps that would significantly reduce the risk to cattle and human health even more. Some of those steps include restrictions on animal feed and meat processing.

As of last October, FDA had inspected 10,576 firms and found 364 out of compliance with the feed rules. In some cases, firms that broke the rules have not been inspected again for a year or more, the GAO report said. Some firms also have repeatedly violated the regulations. The report also said that the Agriculture Department needs to increase its testing of cattle for the disease, particularly for animals that die while still on a farm.

The department plans to increase its testing from 5,000 to 12,500 cattle a year. USDA also is considering banning the sale of brains and certain types of beef from cattle considered at risk for getting the illness.

The GAO report was requested by three Senators: Richard Durbin, D-Ill, Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who is also the chair of the Senate Ag Committee. Durbin plans to introduce legislation to tighten federal regulation of animal feed and meat processing.

"It has become clear through the experiences of European countries and through GAO's investigation that mad cow disease presents a threat to public health in this country," Durbin said.

Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute, said the GAO report "misinterprets, or simply ignores the effectiveness of measures already taken" by the government.