New mad-cow rule poses health dangers of its own
(Associated Press, PA)
By MICHAEL RUBINKAM
A federal regulation aimed at preventing mad cow disease from getting into the food supply could create health risks of its own: many thousands of cattle carcasses rotting on farms, spreading germs, attracting vermin and polluting the water.
At issue is a Food and Drug Administration rule, set to take effect in April, that will prohibit the use of the brains and spinal cords of older cattle as ingredients in livestock feed and pet food.
Some of the rendering plants that grind up carcasses for use in feed have already announced they will stop accepting dead cattle from farms because it would be too costly to remove the banned organs. Other renderers are likely to raise the prices they charge farmers.
As a result, many farmers _ especially now, with the economy in crisis _ may simply bury dead cattle on their property or let them rot in the open, industry officials and regulators say.
"I think there will be some illegal disposal _ animals that get dragged into the woods or into the back fields," said Gerald F. Smith Jr., president of Winchester, Va.-based Valley Proteins Inc., which operates 12 rendering plants in seven states but will no longer remove dead cattle from farms come February. He said the fee per animal would have to go from $85 to $200 to cover the additional expense, and "I don't think the farmers would be willing to pay."
Farmers already routinely bury, abandon or compost millions of cattle carcasses each year without serious environmental problems, according to the FDA.
But the fear is that the new rule could lead farmers to put hundreds of thousands more dead animals into the ground, especially on dairy farms, which tend to have many more older cows than cattle ranches do, and are often closer to populated areas, too.
According to the FDA's own environmental assessment of the new rule, abandoning dead cattle or improperly burying or composting them can cause foul odors; pollute soil, groundwater and streams; and attract insects and scavengers. Moreover, the infectious agent that carries mad cow disease may survive burial or composting, the agency said.
"In some areas of the country ... adverse environmental impacts could be expected unless new disposal capacity is developed," the FDA said.
Thomas Glanville, an agricultural engineering professor at
For decades, farmers have sent their dead cows to rendering plants to be turned into pet food, soaps, cosmetics, toothpaste, lubricants and other products. The carcasses are ground to a uniform particle size, heated under pressure to separate fat, protein and bone, and then refined.
The FDA regulation is aimed at providing an added layer of
protection against mad cow, a brain disease that has been linked to more than
150 human deaths worldwide, mostly in Britain. Scientists believe the human
version of mad cow is transmitted when people eat tainted beef. The
Nearly 2 million head of beef and dairy cattle annually,
or more than 40 percent of all those that die before they can be sent to
slaughter, are rendered in the
Regulators estimate the new feed ban will reduce the number of cattle handled by rendering plants by 500,000 to 800,000 annually.
Some farmers will be hamstrung by state or local
regulations that limit burial or composting, in which the carcass is left to
decay in a pile of clippings and other organic material.
Still, properly done, composting is a good alternative to rendering, experts say.
Dairy farmer Tim Forry said he
began composting his 1,200-pound
"I can't say I've noticed any odor at all coming off of this," he said.
Glenn Stoltzfus, 42, a dairy
farmer with 500 cows in
Other farmers, though, drag dead calves into the woods and leave them for scavengers, Stoltzfus said. "You'll see the turkey buzzards circling," he said. "It's not a very pleasant thing. A large cow, you don't want to do that with."
Tom Craig, 60, who runs a 1,000-cow dairy farm near
"You don't want to have that next to somebody's house," he said.
Because younger cattle are believed to pose almost no risk of mad cow, only the brains and spinal cords of cattle 2 1/2 years and older will be prohibited from animal feed. The FDA rule is expected to affect the dairy industry more than the beef industry because most beef cattle are slaughtered before they turn 2 1/2.
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