Veneman vows continued efforts for safety


(Note: This was in the LOCAL section of this paper! WHY?)


January 7, 2004


By Mike Lewis, Seattle Post Intelligencer reporter or 206-448-8140


Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman grew up on a family farm in California's Central Valley. From 1995 to 1999, she served as secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture in the administration of Governor Pete Wilson, managing farming programs and services for the nation's largest agricultural producing state. President Bush appointed her agriculture secretary in 2001. 

This week Veneman granted a rare one-on-one interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Asked about the discovery of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy), or mad cow disease, in a Washington dairy cow on December 24, 2003, Veneman noted: "I've had more relaxing holidays, I can tell you that." 

In television appearances, you've stressed your complete confidence in the safety of American beef. You've said there is no concern about BSE in muscle cuts of infected cattle. Even so, this beef is being recalled. Is it simply a gesture to inspire consumer and importer confidence? Is there a safety reason as well? 

This (recall) is in an abundance of caution. All of the scientific evidence points to the fact that this meat in the muscle cuts is not a risk to human health. But we felt it was prudent to maintain the integrity of the food supply and people's confidence (by conducting) a recall of all of the product that went through the processing plant that day. 

Now, we've done a couple of things (since the recall) that would not require us to do it again. We've implemented a test-and-hold policy. In other words, for any cow that's tested for BSE, that meat would not be allowed to run through the plant and go into the food supply until we got the test results back. 

Many plants already ran that way. This was a smaller plant, I think. 

We don't feel that there is a food safety risk from muscle cuts, however. ... I don't see any kind of consumer risk here. It's to maintain consumer confidence. 

Do you view the restrictions that went into effect this week as step one, or the sum total of the agency's regulatory response to this issue? 

No. This is our initial response. And I think it has been aggressive. I think it's been very important that we take action immediately given the change in status of this country as now having one BSE animal.

We are going to continue to look at various actions that will further protect our cattle in this country from this disease. We've been doing this for many years, from the time we instituted the feed ban to the Harvard Risk Assessment. (Mad cow disease results from cattle eating feed contaminated with infected cow brain or spinal cord -- a practice banned in 1997. The HRA, a 2001 study of the U.S. beef industry, found a "small chance" that BSE-infected cattle were in the country.) ... 

We also will appoint an international panel of experts from around the world who have true expertise in BSE. Canada did a similar thing. We will be looking to them to make recommendations on further actions that we might take. I legitimately want to be looking to this group for unbiased scientific recommendations as to what else we can do to protect against this disease. 

What do you think of the Food and Drug Administration's job in enforcing the 1997 feed ban? Long before the disease appeared in the country, the General Accounting Office criticized the FDA for failing to adequately enforce the ban. 

I think they've been doing quite a good job of trying to enforce the feed ban. I think there's certainly been some criticism of them from the GAO and so forth. That's not under my jurisdiction, despite the fact that we keep hearing on the radio that the FDA is under the USDA. It's important to recognize we work very closely (with the FDA), particularly our undersecretary for food safety. We've been discussing these issues in detail since the outbreak. 

I think the feed ban is a critical element in our overall BSE strategy. My understanding is that they (FDA officials) say we are at a 99 percent compliance rate. It appears from what we know in this investigation so far that this cow was indeed born before the ban. The feed issue is one of the big issues in terms of causing the spread of the disease so it's important that we have strong feed control. 

If you look at the history of Europe -- and they had the biggest problems (with mad cow disease) -- once they figured out it was this feed problem, that's when they began to be able to get control of it. 

Are you looking at further restrictions to the feed ban? For example, banning the feeding of poultry litter to cattle, or banning all slaughterhouse waste from animal feed of any kind? 

I really can't speak on behalf of what the FDA may or may not do. I know that they are looking at the whole array of practices. I think we are going to be discussing North American strategy with Canada and learn from their experiences. ... We think it is important that we have pretty consistent regulations because we have so many processors that are processing on both sides of the border.


We're trying to work this issue in a more global context. 

We have a regulation that's pending on importing cattle for slaughter. (The regulation would have allowed the importation of Canadian cattle under 30 months old -- an age generally regarded a very low risk for BSE. All imported cattle had been banned after Canada's BSE discovery.) 

The closing date (for public comment) on that particular regulation (was Monday). But we announced on Friday that we will keep that in abeyance while we finish this investigation. ... We have to allow people more time to comment on the rule now that we have these new and changed circumstances. 

How are you working with the FDA to ensure closer collaboration? Do you blame loopholes in the '97 feed restrictions for worsening the situation? Is USDA as an agency faced with trying to manage a genie that was let out of the bottle on somebody else's watch? 

On BSE and on a number of issues we collaborate with FDA. This cow came from Canada in roughly the same region that their BSE cow came from. Although one is a dairy animal and one is a beef animal, both of them were older than the feed ban. 

And so it would appear, to me, that there may have been some infected feed that may have gotten into cattle feed that may have impacted these two cows that have now been found. 

What should cattle and dairy ranchers and slaughter houses in Washington and the rest of the United States expect as potential changes in their operations next year? 

We're looking at whole range of issues. One of the things that we are looking at is an animal (identification) system. Dairy animals generally do have an animal ID system. A lot of work has been done on how we would implement an animal ID system on a national level. 

All we really want to do is track animals for animal disease purposes, back to birth, where they came from, that kind of thing. It is a matter of how do we now create a national system where we can use it in the event of an animal disease outbreak? 

It's not just BSE. Suppose we got an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. Guess what? It will really take down your herds quickly. 

Should ranchers, certainly the ones in Eastern Washington who have been affected by this, expect government relief given the quarantine of their herds? 

We're looking at that. There probably will be some relief if these folks have to slaughter their herds. We're going to have some way to help them. 

The same safety measures announced last week -- including banning "downer" cows from the food supply -- have been in place for the National School Lunch Program for years. If that meat wasn't considered safe for school children, why has it been allowed for general consumption? 

The issue of downers in the system has been the issue of considerable debate for a number of years. The general thinking was that if a cow has an injury like a broken leg that it is not a risk to the food supply. If you watch television you would think you are putting the most diseased animals in the system. That is just not the way our regulations work. 

In the case of this (BSE-infected) cow, the cow had complications during pregnancy -- it hurt her pelvis or something -- and that's why she ended up being a downer cow. 

Since we now have BSE, since we know that downer animals are some of the higher-risk animals, we simply decided to completely take them out of the human food chain. 

The downer cow ban is something that had been talked about for a few years. Did BSE being discovered in the United States, in your opinion, budge an industry that had dug in its heels on this particular issue? 

Frankly, it's hard for me to say how strongly the industry had its heels dug in. My impression is that their position on this particular topic had been softening to some extent. I think they realized that there was consumer concern about it. 

There are relatively few cattle that are classified in this downer category -- 150,000 to 200,000 downer cattle that we are taking out of the system out of 35 million. 

There's also a very important distinction to make. There are cattle that never go into the food chain that are dying and dead on the farm. They go straight into rendering. Those cattle never go into the food system. 

(AMR, a hydraulic system used to blast meat scraps from cattle bones, has been criticized as unsafe because some bone and nerve tissue has been bound in AMR-processed beef. AMR beef is used for hamburgers and pizza toppings, for example.)


What is the future of AMR technology? 

We put additional restrictions on the age of cattle that can be used. When you have cattle under 30 months, you have a very low-risk animal. So we said (AMR) can't be used on animals over 30 months. 

In addition, we are talking about having to take out the spinal cord (before processing). The technology on AMR is getting better. Plus, we test AMR beef. 

You've spent much of your entire career working closely with agriculture and agribusiness. Have you dealt with any issues that compare to BSE from both a political and health standpoint? 

There a lot of things that have helped me prepare for this. When I was in California we got hit with ... two strawberry incidents one year apart. The first one was that California strawberries were being targeted in that Houston outbreak of cyclospora (a parasite). It turned out to be raspberries from Guatemala. In the meantime California lost between $20 million and $40 million in sales. 

We also had the Odwalla E. coli issue. (In 1998, the FDA fined Odwalla Inc. $1.5 million for selling E. coli-tainted juice that killed a baby girl and sickened other people.) And it was the largest food safety fine in the history of the FDA, I think. We watched how that was handled. 

When I got here, immediately we started dealing with foot-and-mouth disease in Europe, and of course that's not a food safety issue, but still we were very concerned and we were doing everything we could. Then of course we started worrying about homeland security, which involves some of the same issues. 

In May of this year we got the news that Canada has BSE. So we really went through this then. Here it is in North America. How are we going to handle it? How are we going to maintain consumer confidence? 

Obviously nothing is as big as when you get the announcement in your own country. This has been a very, very big (issue) to have to deal with. It's the biggest of its type that I've had to deal with in my career.