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Many urge action over mad cow

One of the key players in the December 2003 mad cow incident in Washington isn’t surprised that a second case of the disease was confirmed in the United States on Friday.

His concerns about the quality of the beef supply haven’t faded.

“I’m just shocked that they came out with the truth,” said Dave Louthan, a former slaughterhouse worker, who said he killed the infected Washington cow a year and a half ago.

Louthan advocated testing all cows for the disease – also called bovine spongiform encephalopathy – in early 2004. But after several radio interviews and meetings with lawmakers, he backed down.

“It got too dangerous,” Louthan said. “I was getting a lot of threats from a lot of places.”

Others on Friday took up the call for action.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., criticized the Food and Drug Administration for never closing loopholes in the 1997 ban that prohibits cow tissue from being incorporated into cattle feed.

“While the beef industry and the ranchers back in Washington state have been working nonstop to restore consumer confidence, the administration has been dragging its heels on important safety measures,” Cantwell said in a written statement.

Cantwell supports enhanced testing protocols announced by Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns on Friday.

Consumer watchdog groups shared Cantwell’s concerns.

“Even the remains of an animal known to carry a mad cow-type disease could legally go into feed for pigs, chickens and pets under current Food and Drug Administration rules,” Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of “Consumer Reports,” said in a statement. It urged the government to close the loopholes “that allow the feeding of cow’s blood and chicken coop floor waste to cattle,” according to United Press International.

The infected cow in the new case was born before the 1997 feed ban, the Department of Agriculture said. It was also a “downer,” meaning it couldn’t walk and therefore would have been banned from the food supply.

In the 2003 incident in Mabton, Wash., the cow’s location was pinpointed quickly.

This time, the government hasn’t confirmed the state where the diseased cow was discovered.

“They handle it differently, realizing that maybe they didn’t handle it that well the first time,” said Kate Sandboe, communications director for the Washington state Department of Agriculture.

There’s no reason to believe the animal was from Washington, she said.

Chad Henneman, executive drover for Cattle Producers of Washington, didn’t know the new cow’s origin, either, but he said the U.S. should keep the standards currently in place, including the ban on cattle imports from Canada.

He said cattlemen fear U.S. trading partners are not going to trust this country’s surveillance standards.

“I hope the USDA will look at their methods and testing procedures and tighten up any loopholes,” Henneman said. “Until we know the source we are going to see our cattle prices fall.”

He questioned the USDA’s record-keeping on the diseased cow.

“Where are the records for this cow?” he asked. “Why do we have to rely on DNA? Where are the brand records for her? There are a lot of questions that have to be answered, and I hope the USDA answers them in a timely manner.”

Until there are more answers, Washington State University food safety expert Val Hillers said consumers shouldn”t worry about eating beef.

Although mad cow gets the headlines, food-borne bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella are much more common, Hillers said.

“The kinds of things we should be worried about are: Are we washing our hands? Are we cooking meats, particularly ground meats, thoroughly?” she said.

Barbecue season presents particular challenges for keeping the bacteria at bay because outdoor grills tend to cook food unevenly, Hillers said.

Louthan, the former slaughterhouse worker, works with potatoes now instead of cattle. But he won’t put his barbecue tools aside this summer. Louthan still eats beef, but grinds a good quality steak himself if he wants a burger.