Everyoneʼs been talking about BSE. Even Oprah. But what does it mean for you and your pets?
Now that BSE has been in the news in a big way, it’s time for Good Dog! to offer some comments. We’ve known about BSE for several years, but had vowed to ourselves to keep our mouths shut. We didn’t want to start a big scare if it was not warranted.
Well, it’s probably still not warranted, even if you’re one of our readers living in
England and feeding a British-made food.
BSE is Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy. It’s a mystery disease that causes the brain to turn to Swiss cheese. Well, not exactly. But the brain develops holes like Swiss cheese, and begins to look like a sponge. That’s why it’s called “spongi-form.” In sheep, the disease is called scrapie. In people, it’s Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease (CJD). A similar disease also affects cats. So far, no cases of any similar diseases have been reported in dogs anywhere in the world.
We’ve been following the story in our sister publication, Dog Industry Newsletter, for several years. Judging from the response to our articles, the American pet food industry has been quite concerned.
Here in the U.S., there have been no cases of BSE reported – even after a decade-long search by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But steps are being taken anyway, to make sure that BSE doesn’t get a toehold here, and even if it does, that it doesn’t become an epidemic. One step being taken is a long-standing ban on the importation of meat and by-products from any country with BSE. That’s handled by the U.S.D.A.’s APHIS animal and plant inspection service (the Beagle Brigade people.) APHIS is tightening their surveillance, as are the USDA’s meat inspectors at the slaughterhouses.
A few years ago, a voluntary ban on old sheep was instituted by American rendering plants. These factories take animal carcasses and body parts not used for human consumption, and use heat to make them into meat meals for use in animal feed. The ban covers older sheep, which are more likely to have scrapie. (It takes several years for scrapie and BSE to show up, so animals under the age of one year are unlikely to have the diseases.) In addition, the renderers will only work with sheep carcasses that come from federally-inspected meat plants.
The last major scrapie outbreak occurred in the early 1950’s in the U.S. In 1952, there was also a major outbreak in Australia and New Zealand. Those countries killed their entire flocks of sheep, and eradicated scrapie. The U.S. sheep industry didn’t go as far, and scrapie still exists here, although on a very small scale. Still, nearly all pet food manufacturers have chosen to buy lamb for their lamb and rice pet foods from scrapie-free Australia and New Zealand.
These brain diseases are still not well-understood. They’re not caused by a bacteria or a virus, but by an unusual type of protein. It’s not alive, and therefore it can’t be killed. But high heat can inactivate the protein, to a degree.
The disease can be spread by consumption of brains and spinal cords that contain the protein. It can apparently also be transmitted through blood. Six of the ten most recent British deaths from CJD were people who had worked in jobs where their blood might have come in contact with contaminated beef. The disease can also be transmitted through blood donations from people with CJD, and through growth and fertility hormones. What’s the connection with the hormones? They’re derived from corpses, and sometimes the corpses contain the protein. Five women and one man died in Australia after receiving the hormones. One scientist in Australia estimates that there could be up to 60 cases of CJD a year in Australia. Switzerland has had four to seven cases of CJD a year between 1991 and 1995, and 68 cases of BSE in 1995, 64 in 1994. No cases of BSE have been reported in the U.S.
Cats are affected, too. In the past six years, 70 domestic cats have died from encephalopathy in the United Kingdom. They call it “mad cat disease” there. The speculation is that the disease was transmitted through pet food containing the remains of BSE-infected cattle.
Various countries have been taking action to protect people and pets from the BSE family of diseases. The United Kingdom’s Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association introduced a voluntary ban on what is euphemistically called “specified bovine offal” of SBO. The voluntary ban went into effect before the government introduced legislation in June of 1989. The ban on SBO in human food followed five months later.
Andrew Mackin, an animal nutritionist at Edinburgh University’s Royal Dick Veterinary College said, “It would have been safer to eat a tin of (dog food) than a beef burger in summer, 1989.” Speaking about today’s products, he said, “Pet foods are highly processed and sterilized to a very high standard.”
As for the need for a study of the problem in animals, the question of statistical significance comes up. A British Ministry of Agriculture spokesman said, “There have only been 70 cases out of a (current) cat population of 7 million. They need something like 200 cases to form a proper study and to come to any proper conclusions.” Remember, though, that those 70 cases occurred over a long period of time, and out of many millions of cats. And most of the cases occurred in older cats, who were alive before the ban on SBO.
Meanwhile, the British government is considering banning the use of all mammal protein in pet food and other animal feed. The government just rejected a plan to do a mass slaughter of all British cattle to restore confidence. But the damage has been done to the reputation of British foods abroad. Glen Brookfield, Route Managing Director for Pets Choice Ltd. said, “The problem is market forces … we spent two years penetrating the French market and just as we managed it, we’re out overnight.”
The Japanese have extended a 45-year ban on British beef imports to include pet food. “Japan has not allowed imports of beef from England, but it is possible that some beef is contained in pet food,” Agriculture Minister Ichizo Ohara told the Japanese Parliament. “We will inform the British Embassy here of the banning of all imports of beef products, including processed foods.”
Switzerland has also banned the use of meat, offal (by-products) and bone meal in animal feed. All cattle, sheep and goats more than six months old must be examined by an expert before slaughter, and all animal owners must report animals suspected of sickness to a veterinarian.
Here in the U.S., the Department of Agriculture is increasing its role in surveillance inspections for BSE. Inspectors from the Food Safety and Inspection Service will now look for any animals that show symptoms associated with BSE. There are specific procedures they’ll follow to insure that those animals are kept out of the meat or feed supply. The U.S. has not imported processed beef, or cattle, from the United Kingdom since 1989. Similar stringent restrictions on the importation of cattle and beef protect us from the possibility of BSE coming in from other countries where it is prevalent.
The USDA has examined over 2,660 suspected animals from 43 states, and hasn’t found BSE in American cattle. On March 22, the USDA held a meeting with 70 people from various international health authorities, state and public health agencies, the scientific community and industry. The goal was to discuss the situation and see what could be done to further prevent the spread of the disease.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is considering a ban on the use of cattle and sheep remains in cattle feed. The agency is considering whether to issue extended regulations based on an August, 1994 proposal to ban the use of goats and certain parts of sheep in animal feeds. According to the experts at the FDA we spoke with, the regulations will codify the voluntary ban on feeding ruminant by-products to other ruminants. A new proposed regulation is being drafted now. The purpose behind this regulation will be to add another layer of safety into the food supply. If there were a case of BSE, it would not be spread in animal feed, and an epidemic would be prevented. The safety factor would help protect people as well as food animals and pets.
Another safety factor involves the way meat meals are processed in the U.S. A new study shows that in Britain and other European nations, four of the 15 rendering processes used aren’t hot enough to inactivate the protein. In the U.S., renderers have always used high-temperature rendering. (In England, farmers used to feed their baby calves “greaves,” which were by-products that were not fully rendered. That practice has now been stopped.)
What does the FDA say about pet food? Dr. David Dzanis of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine says he sees little cause for concern. He told Good Dog! “There have been no reported cases of brain diseases like this in dogs, anywhere in the world. (See article below for an update.) The U.S. is currently BSE-free, and our high-temperature rendering processes would help inactivate the protein that causes BSE. Add to that the extra steps that are being taken to prevent BSE from getting into the country, and the ruminant to ruminant ban that’s being implemented voluntarily, and you’ve got a very safe pet food supply.”
Keith Hansen, Nutritionist for Merrick Petfoods (which owns its own rendering plant), concurs: “We have, without question, the safest beef supply, and the safest feed supply in the world.”
But the whole issue might become moot, sooner, rather than later. A new, simple test for BSE and similar diseases has been developed which appears to be accurate in people, cows and other animals.
Dr. Michael Harrington, of the Cali-fornia Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, is working with scientists from the U.S. National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. He expects to submit a paper on the new test to the peer-reviewed New England Journal of Medicine in the next few weeks.
Harrington, a native of Glasgow, Scotland, said he identified two proteins 10 years ago. These proteins are present in cases of CJD, and in the similar diseases which affect animals. His first test for the proteins, developed a decade ago, was too technologically complex for widespread use.
Dr. Harrington told the Reuters wire service, “The test has been available but no one has done it. Why is that? Because the technology is really more than hospitals and clinics will ever do. It takes about three days to do and they just don’t like the technical complexities.”
Harrington received funding a year ago to devise a simpler test. The new test uses an antibody to identify the proteins, which he has numbered 130 and 131. The same two proteins, or markers, which are extracted from spinal fluid, are also found in cows with BSE. Using the new test, a handful of technicians could test up to 2,000 cows a month.
Harrington said that in the thousands of human cases he has examined using the old test and the new test, only three diagnoses were found to be inaccurate. The tests he has run on cows and other animals, while accurate in detecting spongiform encephalopathy such as BSE, have only been used on a small number of animals.
With this new test, Harrington believes that cows with BSE could be singled out. But more rigorous testing of the test is needed, according to Harrington. Once his data is published, other scientists can work with the procedure.
It’s still not known how early the two proteins appear during the development of the disease, which has a long incubation period. “But that can be evaluated once people get hold of this marker and start studying it,” Harrington said. “One can look at it experimentally and find out how early it appears in the course of the disease. Then we’ll have some idea, (if) this appears only in the established clinical syndrome in the animal or the human, or (if) it appears before that.” In other words, will the marker be detectable ahead of the symptoms?
What does this all mean to you and your pets? Not a whole lot, at this point. Our advice is to stay calm, and to not fret. The food supply in the U.S. is quite safe right now, and even more precautions are being piled on, just in case. So all you have do to is watch the situation and see if it changes. If you’re exceptionally concerned and have to do something, you can feed a chicken or poultry-based food. These brain diseases don’t affect any birds, including chickens or turkeys. (Then again, they don’t affect dogs, either, so why worry?)
The bottom line is that there’s no need for concern at this point. The pet food industry is watching carefully, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is watching carefully, and the Food and Drug Administration is watching carefully. So far, so good. But we’ll be watching carefully, too, and we’ll let you know if there are any further developments.