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Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE, or "Mad Cow Disease"): Current and Proposed Safeguards

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Through mid-February 2007, the United States had confirmed three cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or "mad cow disease"): the first in December 2003 in a Canadian-born cow found in Washington state, the second in June 2005 in cow in Texas, and the third in March 2006 in a cow in Alabama.

Shortly after the first case, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and other officials announced measures to improve existing safeguards against the introduction and spread of BSE. Previously, the major safeguards were: (1) USDA restrictions on imports of ruminants and their products from countries with BSE; (2) a ban on feeding most mammalian proteins to cattle and other ruminants, issued by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA); and (3) a targeted domestic surveillance program by USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the agency responsible for animal health monitoring and disease control.

Some argued that these safeguards were inadequate, as evidenced by findings of BSE here and subsequent federal efforts to bolster protections. Most new actions announced by USDA on December 30, 2003, were under the purview of USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), responsible for the safety of most U.S. meat and poultry. These actions took effect in January 2004 and included (1) holding tested carcasses until BSE-negative results are obtained; (2) banning nonambulatory ("downer") cattle from human food; and (3) banning certain additional animal parts from human food. USDA also increased work and spending on a national animal identification and tracking system, and undertook an enhanced BSE surveillance program, among other activities. On January 26, 2004, FDA announced planned changes to its safeguards, including additional bovine materials banned from the human foods and cosmetics it regulates; a ban on poultry litter, restaurant waste, and ruminant blood products from ruminant feed; and stricter oversight of feed manufacturing. In lieu of these changes, FDA on October 6, 2005, proposed a ban, in all types of animal feed, of some higher-risk cattle parts. A final rule is pending.

Many Members of the 110th Congress continue to closely follow these BSE developments; hearings and legislative proposals on various aspects of the issue are possible. Among the policy questions have been whether expanded agency actions have provided further protections against BSE, whether they are scientifically sound, and what costs they may have imposed on consumers, taxpayers, and industry. Also at issue have been whether USDA and FDA have effectively implemented and enforced the current safeguards; whether these safeguards will be sufficient to rebuild foreign markets' confidence in the safety of U.S. beef; and whether other types of actions should be considered, among other questions. Additional U.S. BSE cases could affect these policy deliberations.

This report will be updated if significant developments occur.