January 28, 2004

Cornell Prof Testifies on Mad Cow

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Alfonso Torres, a Cornell expert on foreign and emerging animal diseases and veterinary public policy, testified before the Senate Agriculture Committee yesterday in a hearing on mad cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

Torres spoke on how the disease relates to food safety, livestock marketing and international trade. BSE is a pertinent issue in the United States due to the discovery of a dairy cow infected with the disease in Washington state last month.

The hearing began at 9:30 a.m. in the Senate Dirksen Building and was chaired by Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.). After introducing himself to the committee, Torres spoke of his work involving “the protection of our nation against the incursion of foreign animal diseases.”

Torres was one of the lead participants at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in preparing a report to the Senate committee as part of the Animal Disease Risk Assessment, Prevention, and Control Act of 2001, which dealt with the plans of federal agencies to protect the U.S. from foot-and-mouth disease and BSE.

Torres explained how his experiences at USDA as well as more current activities provided the foundation for his comments on the current situation concerning BSE, saying that while BSE is new in our country, it is “not a new disease to [people] in the veterinary community.” The disease was first recognized in the United Kingdom in 1986.

BSE is a slow progressive disease that affects the central nervous system of cattle and eventually leads to their death. It is part of a larger family of similar diseases called transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs) that affect both animals and humans. “The initial lack of scientific knowledge about BSE led to some erroneous conclusions,” Torres said, especially in predicting potential public health risks of BSE. Since scrapie, another TSE, has not been a human health hazard for over two centuries, it was first thought that BSE would not be a health hazard to humans either. However, it is now apparent that the infectious agent associated with BSE can infect humans as well. Zoo animals and domestic and wild cats, mostly in the U.K., contracted related diseases when they consumed feeds containing parts of cattle that died of BSE. Torres said that though today much more is known about how the disease is transmitted and diagnosed, and which tissues of an affected animal contain the infectious agent, “there are many scientific gaps in regard to this disease.”

Torres gave advice on three areas where regulations can make a significant difference in protecting our meat supply. First, improvements can be made in restrictions on trade of ruminants and ruminant products; second, the U.S. can create a “targeted domestic surveillance program” with an animal ID program; and third, he said there should be a “ruminant feed ban” to rule out the risk of cows becoming infected by eating meat from other cattle with the disease.

These three tactics would be most helpful in preventing infected animals or “risk materials” from entering the U.S., as well as tracing other potentially infected animals and preventing the spread of the disease, Torres said.

Torres ended his comments saying that the “effective actions” of the USDA and the FDA following the December BSE finding maintained consumer confidence in U.S. beef products. “While the trade embargoes were to be expected in a situation like this,” he said, he hopes that “with the implementation of further actions as suggested, we would continue to enhance the defense of our nation against BSE, and sustain domestic and international confidence in our animal industries and the safety of our food and feed supply.”

At Cornell, Torres is the executive director of the New York State Animal Health Diagnostic Laboratory and associate dean of veterinary public policy in the College of Veterinary Medicine. He is a former federal government senior executive, serving at the Plum Island Foreign Animal Disease Center, and as chief veterinary officer of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. According to Linda Story, director of communications for the College of Veterinary Medicine, since Torres is no longer holding a position in the federal government, he now has a unique perspective in evaluating the sufficiency of government actions in response to a case of BSE in the United States.

Other witnesses at the hearing included Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman and U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Mark McClellan.

Archived article by Lauryn Slotnick