Food Engineering

Feds prepare to take on Mad Cow Disease

March 22, 2003


The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) plans to expand efforts to combat bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) -- better known as "Mad Cow Disease" -- with a multi-pronged plan that will place greater emphasis on surveillance, research and inspection, according to HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson. Thompson said that HHS will implement the plan in conjunction with other government agencies, the private sector and the international community.

He elaborated that while numerous precautionary steps have been taken at the federal and local levels to prevent BSE from occurring in the U.S., the government needs to improve its understanding of the disease, which causes progressive neurological degeneration in cattle. "This plan lays out a course of action to expand our understanding of BSE and its potential for transmission to humans," Thompson said. The HHS plan also targets related diseases, known as transmissable spongioform encephalopathies (TSE), that leave sponge-like gaps in brain tissue much as BSE does. A TSE known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) affects humans, while a variant CJD (vCJD) is probably related to BSE in cattle.

Specifics of the HHS plan include:

  • Surveillance. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will enhance its current program to identify and investigate possible cases of vCJD. Through cooperative agreements with state and local health departments, CDC also will enhance and expedite the oversight of illness and deaths from CJD so that any possible vCJD cases will be rapidly detected. CDC will also develop new laboratory capacity to support its investigations and enhance its current collaborative agreements with Surveillance Center at Case Western Reserve University and others.
  • Protection. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will review and expand its import inspection programs to keep potentially infected food products out of the U.S., and its animal feed inspection program to prevent the use of mammalian protein in feed for ruminant animals such as cows and sheep. FDA will also continually review and revise its policies designed to prevent potential exposure to vCJD and other TSEs through blood transfusions and tissue transplants.
  • Research. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) will more than double its current spending for research on TSEs, including BSE and vCJD, by the end of fiscal year 2002. Goals for the NIH research program include understanding prions, the abnormal proteins that cause TSEs; learning how TSEs are transmitted among animals; developing diagnostic tests for animal and people, including an effective vCJD screening test; and designing drug treatments.
  • Oversight. In addition to providing program support, HHS will take the steps necessary to provide the public with timely information about BSE and vCJD.