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USDA Transcript Masthead with seal and address

Release No. 0170.03

Teleconference with APHIS Administrator Bobby Acord,
APHIS Senior Staff Scientist Lisa Ferguson, FDA Director,
Center for Veterinary Medicine Dr. Stephen Sundlof
FSIS Acting Assistant Deputy Administrator for Policy Analysis and Formulation, Dr. Daniel Engeljohn

Thursday, May 22, 2003; 3:30 p.m.

- - -

     MODERATOR, ALISA HARRISON: Thank you, Operator, and good afternoon everyone, and thank you for joining us. We wanted to get everyone together to provide an opportunity to ask some technical questions about BSE and the situation in Canada. As you can imagine, the information, there's a lot of information out there, there's a lot of things that we can clarify, and there's a lot that we can't, just because the information's not clear.

So we'll try to give you as much as information as has possibly been confirmed. We will make every effort, from here on out, to provide opportunity to provide you any new information as it comes along. We have a variety of experts here with us today.

Mr. Bobby Acord, who is the administration of APHIS. Dr. Lisa Ferguson, who is a senior staff scientist at APHIS in charge of the TSE program. Dr. Stephen Sundlof who is the director of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine, and Dr. Daniel Englejohn who is the FSIS acting assistant deputy administrator for policy analysis and formulation. I have to take a breath after that one.

We also have available as a resource, Mr. Bill Smith, who is the deputy administrator for field operations.

Mr. Acord will make a few brief opening remarks and then we'll go directly into questions. We have about 30 minutes today, so we'll try to take care of all the questions that are out there. So with that, Mr. Acord.

     MR. ACORD: Thank you. We're delighted to have the opportunity today to share some information with you that we think will help you to understand the situation here. This is another full-time job for us, you know, at this point. We have twice daily briefings with the Secretary. She is very engaged as are the subcabinet officers in the Department of Agriculture.

We have had calls with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. We are talking to our counterparts up there both on, you know, the animal health side and then the inspection side.

We have a team of, or expect to have, within another day here, a team of five in Canada to assist them, made up of both APHIS personnel as well as FSIS personnel. These folks have backgrounds and training in veterinary pathology and in epidemiology.

We have, you know, offered to provide any additional assistance that, you know, Canada might need, and we continue to stay in contact with them at this point. We have people both in Ottawa and at the laboratory in Winnipeg.

We have also been in close communication with our colleague at FDA. I think it's clear that, you know, this has to a one-government effort here in the U.S., working with the government of Canada, and I think we have had, you know, excellent coordination between ourselves and FDA.

So we're pleased to have had the opportunity to share this information with you today.

So with that, I think we'll go to questions, and get started.

     OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, if you have a question at this time, please press the “one” key on your touchtone telephone. If your question has been answered or you wish to remove yourself from the queue, please press the “pound” key.

Again, if you have a question, please press the one key on your touchtone telephone.

     HARRISON: Operator, before we do take the first question, I would ask the questioners, as they come on, if they would state their name and their news organization. We will be providing a transcript of this session, so it's important that we can have a complete record, so if you would do that we would very much appreciate it.

     OPERATOR: Thank you. Our first question comes from Sally Schuff. You may begin.

     QUESTION: Yes. Hi. This is Sally Schuff. I'm with Feedstuff.

My question is to Dr. Sundlof. Dr. Sundlof, does Canada have regulation banning the importation of meat and bone meal from countries of known, with known cases of BSE?

     DR. SUNDLOF: I can't answer definitely, I'm sorry, but my recollection is that it's similar if not identical to the U.S. position where those countries, the European countries, Japan and potentially Israel, who have identified positive cases of BSE in their country, are not allowed to import products that may contain the infectious agent.

So my sense is, and you probably need to check the facts on this, but my sense is that it's very similar if not identical to the U.S. position.

     HARRISON: I think Dr. Ferguson can add to that as well.

     DR. FERGUSON: Yes, if I can. Actually, we have worked closely with the Canadians over the past several years to harmonize our import requirements so that we would each have essentially the same import requirements. Actually that's been a North American effort, including Mexico. So I think it's safe to say that Canada's import requirements and import restrictions from other countries affected with BSE are essentially the same as ours.

     QUESTION: Thank you.

     OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Emily Gersema.

     QUESTION: Hi. This is Emily Gersema with the Associated Press. I was curious. I guess we've imported about 90,000 head of cattle from Canada since January.

I was curious if we're doing any testing or trying to track where those animals are at. I don't know if Bobby Acord can answer that or—

     MR. ACORD: Well, at this point we've—the statement that we have made, I think that has been shared with everybody, is that as of Tuesday, 1:30, any animals coming, or all animals after that time were banned and all the others could be processed if they were slaughtered. So we have made, you know, no attempt to trace beyond that.

     DR. FERGUSON: But any animals that are here or that have been here would be subjected to our prevention and surveillance system. If any of these animals exhibit any type of clinical signs, of neurological illness, or they would be a "downer," anything else that would fit in with our surveillance program, they would definitely be included in that program.

     HARRISON: That was Dr. Ferguson.

     QUESTION: I have one other question. Because the Canadians had thought the animal had pneumonia back in January, I was curious if Dr. Ferguson could explain the symptoms of pneumonia, if they're similar to BSE, why there might have been some confusion.

     DR. FERGUSON: Okay. I believe some of the confusion came in, and my understanding is this animal presented as a very thin, emaciated animal. Actually, I think she was a "downer" when she actually arrived at the abattoir. So those types of symptoms triggered Canada's surveillance program. But perhaps the bigger point—the clinical signs of BSE can sometimes be very subtle in the early stages, so you could have an animal—that's partly why we are sampling downer animals, that you're not necessarily going to see just classic signs of BSE like you see in all the video clips.

There can be more subtle signs, so that's why both Canada and ourselves do include those downer cows in our sampling scheme.

     QUESTION: Do you know some signs that are similar between the two illnesses?

     DR. FERGUSON: That could be a tough one. It would be sort of generic signs like general weakness and ataxia, that type of thing.

     QUESTION: Okay; thank you.

     OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Mike McGinnis.

     QUESTION: Thanks. My question is as a result of a statement made by Dr. Claude Lavigne of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, just earlier today, was mentioning that they still don't know where some of the offspring are from this cow that was confirmed with mad cow disease, and they still are not willing to say whether any of these cows have been quarantined, may have come from—or the herd, cows of the herd—come from the U.S.

In other words, these herds were assembled from different places, but he wasn't willing to say that they did or did not come from the U.S.

Should we take this, then, as there's still a possibility that A: some of these offspring have entered into the U.S. and B: perhaps some of the quarantined herds did come from the U.S.?

     MR. ACORD: This is Bob Acord. I think what we have is an ongoing investigation that is just a couple of days old here. Information is being developed by the hour. The Canadians are sharing the information with us as they have it, understanding that anything that they have at this point is preliminary.

I don't think we can make any judgments whatsoever at this point until we have a complete investigation and to speculate about anything else would be totally erroneous at this point.

     QUESTION: If I could follow up, Bobby. The statement made by the USDA, I believe it was earlier today or yesterday, that they didn't believe that any of the quarantine cattle came—were ever in the U.S. and then later today said that they're unsure. Why the retrace of statement?

     MR. ACORD: Well, I don't know that there's a retrace of statement. We have always said from the very beginning that this is an ongoing investigation. That facts are developing and I don't know that that really has been a change at all.

     HARRISON: Mike, this is Alisa. There was confusion and we are trying to get the facts corrected.

I think what Mr. Hawks was referring to when he was testifying today; he was referring to the animal that was diagnosed with BSE. He was not referring to the herds or any other animals involved here.

He was also referring to information that he had heard on the Canadian news last night, that they were indicating that this animal that was diagnosed with BSE was not of U.S. origin and so that's the facts as we know it and I think what we're trying to do is get that one story clarified.

     QUESTION: Thank you.

     HARRISON: You're welcome.

     OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Alan Frier [ph].

     QUESTION: Hi. This is Alan Frier from Canadian Television. I'd like to just ask for some clarification on a statement attributed to Under Secretary Hawks today about the U.S. evaluating several options to isolate Canadian cattle and beef products that are already in the state.

I wonder if you could tell me what those options are and how far down the line could that go.

In other words, would it be possible to pull Canadian hamburger off the shelves of Giant stores or can you even identify it at that level?

     MR. ACORD: This is Bob Acord again. We have not made any, you know, such statement that I'm aware of. I think if that statement was attributed to Mr. Hawks, I believe in fact, you know, that it was a misinterpretation of something he might have said, because that has been—you know, none of the discussion that we've had at this point.

So I don't believe that we've entertained any such discussions or ideas at this point.

     QUESTION: If I could just ask one more question. I realize it's very early in the investigation but could you give us some kind of sense, that at what point in the investigation or perhaps what would have to happen in the investigation for the United States to consider lifting the ban?

     MR. ACORD: I don't want to speculate about anything at this point. We just have to deal in facts and deal with them when we get them.

     QUESTION: Just one more quick one if I may. This has struck me as a bit odd, and I'd like to get your take on it, the fact that this cow died or was killed at the end of January, but the testing, the first testing actually didn't take place until last week. The head was sitting in a freezer, apparently, for three-and-a-half months. Do you consider that unusual?

     DR. FERGUSON: We—

     HARRISON: This is Dr. Ferguson.

     DR. FERGUSON: I'm sorry. I have to remember to identify myself.

We can't necessarily comment with that, but we can understand that there are always priorities and different types of settings in laboratories. Beyond that, we really can't speculate or comment on what happened in the lab.

     HARRISON: We do need to move on to another reporter, so next question.

     OPERATOR: Our next question comes from John McChesney. You may begin.

     QUESTION: This is John McChesney from National Public Radio. I'm curious, and I don't know who can address this question, about testing of cattle feed in the United States, since 1997, when the ban was put into placed on mammalian byproducts being in feed.

How is that testing done, how often? Is it random? How do we know what's happening out there?

     DR. SUNDLOF: This is Steve Sundlof, and I can answer that.

Right now we have, there's not an extensive amount of testing, somewhere around the order of 600 domestic samples and 600 import samples, looking for the presence of prohibited material which in this case is most mammalian proteins. We can't look for the agent that causes mad cow disease itself, nobody can. We just don't have the abilities to do that and, again, that's something that science just hasn't gotten us that far.

We're in the process right now of putting into place a more sensitive assay. It's a polymerase chain reaction assay. It's one of these genetic tests that we're trying to introduce that will help us distinguish which of the mammalian proteins, it's difficult because there are a number of mammalian proteins that are prohibited and a few that are allowed, and you have to have the test that is specific to distinguish between those.

But there is a routine sampling that is going on. I think there's supposed to be another 600 domestic and 600 import samples that will be taken again this year to determine if there is any noncompliance with the feed rules.

Right now we do visual inspections of the manifests for anything that—at the ports of entry—for anything that would be suspicious that might contain animal proteins, and we work very closely with APHIS to make sure that we don't miss anything. And so there is a, there is a program in place. It will continue. As we get better and quicker methods, the intensity of that sampling will increase.

     QUESTION: Just one follow-up.

Do we test only imported samples or do we test domestically produced feed as well?

     DR. SUNDLOF: Both. That was 600 domestic and 600 imports.

     QUESTION: Okay. Thanks.

     OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Miriam Falco.

     QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. I have a couple of questions.

One of them is—

     HARRISON: Miriam, could you state your name and your—

     QUESTION: Oh, I'm sorry. Miriam Falco with CNN Medical News.

When it comes to seed, neither Canada nor the U.S. allows any ruminant seed from BSE countries to be fed to—to be imported, let alone fed to any of the cattle here. But can internally produced cattle feed be fed to them or can they just not get it at all? I just want to be very clear about that, and then I have a second question.

     DR. SUNDLOF: I'm sorry. Can you just repeat the question? I didn't quite catch it all.

QUESTION: Can a farmer in the United States feed cows cattle feed that includes ground-up carcasses from cows that were produced in this country or can they not have any cattle carcass ground up, rendered in their feed?

     DR. SUNDLOF: None at all.

     QUESTION: None at all, okay. And the Canadian officials, which the U.S. is assisting them in, have quite a huge task at hand in trying to trace the feed that this cow may have consumed in the six to eight years that it was alive, and they're not even sure about that yet. How huge an undertaking is that and how likely is it that the feed may have come from this country? Because if there's cattle going back and forth across the border, is the feed going back and forth as well?

     DR. SUNDLOF: Well, feed is going back and forth across the border. So in answer to your second question, obviously, there was feed involved someplace. You're absolutely right that the only way that this disease is transmitted is through the feed, unless you inject it directly into the brain of animals, but, for all practical purposes, it's only transmitted through feed.

Where that feed came from, back when the animal was initially infected, my sense is that's going to be almost impossible to trace back. Think of yourself, if you had to trace back food that you ate six years ago, for instance, or four years ago, how would you ever begin to do that? And so it's going to be very difficult. At this point, as I understand it, we don't even know the origin of the animal, let alone what the animal may have eaten at the time that she contracted the disease.

     QUESTION: So, if I may follow up, if this were to happen in this country—because I understand you can't speak for the Canadian officials—but if this were to happen in this country, would the most plausible way to prevent any other cows from being undetected, would that mean you'd have to test every cow that goes to slaughter? This is something the Canadians said they're not ready to do yet.

     DR. SUNDLOF: Right. Let me just give you what the Europeans have done, and this may help with that.

Animals under the age of 24 months—and 24 months is very conservative—generally, the disease does not manifest in animals under 30 months of age. That's the general rule. So animals that are younger than 30 months, but in the case of the European Union, to be on the safe side, they've taken it to 24 months of age, animals under the age of 24 months would not pose any risk to public health, and therefore they only test animals beyond that age, unless they are suffering from some clinical illness or downers or suffering from some neurological diseases.

So that has been the way that the Europeans have addressed this issue, and what the Canadians are going to do, I really can't say.

     DR. FERGUSON: Hi. This is Lisa Ferguson, and I'd like to just add a bit there on the whole point about surveillance. Testing every animal I believe sometimes leads you down a strange pathway. The way we do it in the U.S. and the way the Canadians have done it in the past are we are doing targeted surveillance. We are looking in the high-risk population where the disease would be most likely to show up, and the experience in Europe has been that that is the best way to do things, that that is where they are finding the highest incidence of the disease, and that is, to target that specific population is an excellent way to go about surveillance.

     MR. ACORD: And there's no scientific evidence—this is Bob Acord—there is no scientific evidence to support anything beyond what we're doing in this country, quite frankly.

     OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Philip Brasher.

     QUESTION: Yes, Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register. I have questions for both departments—I guess for USDA, an FSIS question, really.

Is there any—we'll still allow advanced meat recovery equipment to be used on spinal columns. Is there any thought being given to restricting that now that you know that BSE is in North America at least?

     DR. ENGLEJOHN: This is Dr. Dan Englejohn with FSIS at the USDA.

FSIS has looked into the issue of the production of meat trim and, in fact, has conducted a survey this past year of the production practices in this country, and we do know that the advanced meat recovery systems was addressed as a pathway that was identified in the Harvard risk assessment as one potential pathway for the infectious agent to spread if it were in country.

What we have found through our surveys of the industry and the manufacturing practices is that the process can in fact be controlled that central nervous system tissue would not enter the food supply, window systems are properly operated. We've instituted within this country a regulatory program in which we do in fact test product for the presence of central nervous system tissue and know that in fact the processes are being operated in a manner, which is appropriately addressing that.

So when we issued our current thinking paper in February of last year, we identified a number of options that we would in fact be considering, and we're considering them in the form of the best available science to help make the most informed risk management decisions, and so one aspect of that is to use the new information that we now have from the Canadian situation and look at the risk assessment that has been completed by the Harvard group and look at that and see how that may in fact change the potential risk to public health.

But with regard to the advanced meat recovery systems, we do know that they can be operated in a manner that would present, would actually remove the presence of central nervous system tissue from the product.

     QUESTION: And Dr. Sundlof, one more question. Dr. Sundlof, what about banning the use of chicken litter in cattle feed? That's something that you now allow. You're considering banning it. Is this going to expedite that at all?
My second question has to do with the national trace back, Canada is using in their investigation, which we don't have in this country. Is there any thought being given to—

     DR. SUNDLOF: In terms of trace back, are you talking about the animals or—

     QUESTION: Right; the animals.

     DR. SUNDLOF: I'll leave that second question about the trace back to the USDA folks.

The question about poultry litter, that is an issue that we have expressed concern about. We have already put out—I think what you're referring to is our advanced notice of proposed rulemaking which looks at some of the exemptions to the current feed rule, and one of those exemptions clearly is poultry litter, and we will be going—now that we've done the advanced notice of proposed rulemaking, in all likelihood we will be proposing regulations based on—and it will address the issue of poultry litter.

So whether this expedites it or not, I don't know. We were already in the process of trying to determine whether or not that is the appropriate course to take and the process that we have through notice and common rulemaking is still the way that we would address that.

     DR. FERGUSON: And this is Lisa Ferguson on the trace back issue. It all comes back to animal identification, which is an issue in any type of animal disease control program.

We have had animal ID programs in place in the U.S. and we've been working with the industry and other bodies, recently, to help improve that program. That's been going very well and this will only increase the awareness and continue that process.

     HARRISON: Operator, we have time for one more question.

     OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Bill Tomson.

     QUESTION: Hello, this is Bill Tomson with Oster Dow-Jones. Back in January, the head was saved and I'm assuming the samples were taken from the brain of the cow, but do we know what happened to the body of the cow. Was it rendered? I understand that USDA is sure that it did not go into human consumption. But was it rendered for feed? I know it wouldn't be feed for ruminants but feed for other animals.

     DR. SUNDLOF: This is Steve Sundlof. Yes, it was rendered; we know the plant that rendered it. That plant was inspected in February and passed its inspection for BSE. The rendering plant, as part of the feed rule, has to be inspected. Canada's feed rule is identical virtually to ours. So they inspected, Canadian inspectors inspected it, it's our understanding they passed, which means that they are correctly labeling their product and it could have gone to non-ruminant feed; that is correct.

We have no information that would indicate that any of that product came into the United States.

     QUESTION: But you don't know if it came to the United States or stayed in Canada yet?

     DR. SUNLOFF: We're in the process of tracking that down.

     QUESTION: All right. Thank you very much.

     HARRISON: Okay. That's going to have to be it—I'm going to ask for some closing comments but before we do that, I just want to remind folks that we will be making folks available, but in the meantime, if you have any questions, don't hesitate to give us a call and we'll do our best to hook you up with an expert.

So with that, Dr. Ferguson, do you have any closing remarks?

     DR. FERGUSON: Sure. I'd just like to again reiterate the point that this is just the beginning of the investigation of this case and we will have additional information and we'll definitely let folks know as any of that information comes around.

But I'd also like to again emphasize the fact that we have had a very strong prevention and surveillance program in place in the U.S. since 1990.

Our surveillance has been very active. It has been targeted surveillance. We believe our surveillance is done at a level that we would find a one in a million case in the U.S., if it was here, and that surveillance has only increased every year. Last year, we sampled about 20,000 animals, and that actually exceeds what we had established would be a level necessary to find a one in a million case.

     HARRISON: Dr. Sundlof.

     DR. SUNDLOF: Thank you. One of the things that I wanted to mention because it really hasn't come up before, about what the federal agencies and the states have been doing to prepare for a case of BSE in the United States should the unfortunate event ever occur to us and as you remember last week we were going through, the United States was going through this Top Off exercise, simulated bioterrorist attack.

We've had three simulations, mock emergencies, regarding BSE, where—

So all of the federal agencies, the states and other folks have been brought in and have gone through these simulation exercises, so that we are all calibrated and prepared in the event that a case does show up in the United States.

So there's been a lot of good cooperation. I just wanted to also mention that in the United States we inspect a 100 percent of all of the firms that handle what's called prohibited materials of rumen and protein and other proteins that are not allowed to be used in cattle feed.

So a 100 percent of those establishments that either render the product or mix the feed are inspected every year. 99 percent of the firms are in substantial compliance and that's out of a universe of 1500, actually, 1555 firms that are inspected on a yearly basis, that handle this material.

Only thirteen of those firms were not in compliance and we are taking follow-up actions within 30 days of finding a firm in noncompliance.
So the feed rule is, as it currently operates in the United States, is very effective. We spend a lot of effort in making sure that there is good industry compliance with that rule, so that we should have not a case of BSE in the United States.

     HARRISON: Thank you, Dr. Sundlof. Bobby, any closing remarks?

     MR. ACORD: I just simply want to emphasize again that this is in the early stages, the investigation. I think that the issue of, you know, what the Europeans are doing, I don't think necessarily applies here. I think what we have to do is stick with the system that has worked for us. We will work jointly with the Canadians on a system that's going to, that will be workable for North America.

     HARRISON: Thank you, and thanks to all of you who participated. We'll let you know when the next briefing is arranged.

     OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you again for your participation in today's conference. This concludes the program. You may now disconnect. Good day.




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