Legal petitions filed to force FDA, CDC to combat "mad cow" type diseases in the United States

A terminally ill Utah hunter, age 30, could be the first victim of U.S. 'Mad deer' disease. 'Mad cow' type diseases are already killing people, deer, elk and sheep in the United States.

  wo formal legal petitions were filed last month, demanding that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) act immediately to monitor, regulate and prevent "mad cow" type diseases in the United States. These diseases, known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, or TSEs, are killing people, deer, elk and sheep in the United States. Petitioners include the Humane Farming Association, the Center for Food Safety, a group of United States Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) victims and their families and consumer, farm and animal protectionists.

The demand for immediate government action is given added urgency by the extremely unusual case of a thirty-year old Utah man, R. Douglas McEwen, who is now terminally ill with CJD, a "mad cow" type disease in humans. Mr. McEwen hunted deer and elk; it is feared he may have contracted CJD by eating or handling deer or elk infected with "mad deer" disease. Additionally, there is industry and governmental concern that as a frequent donor Mr. McEwen may have contaminated blood products internationally.

Mr. McEwen and his wife Tracie are petitioners in today's legal actions. His fatal disease underscores concerns that current federal regulations are grossly inadequate to prevent and monitor potential animal and human epidemics in the United States.

The family of "mad cow" type disease, TSEs, include numerous strains and have different names in different species. The best known strain is British bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), dubbed "mad cow disease," which has now spread into the British human population as "new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease" or nvCJD. So far, 33 teenagers or young adults are confirmed dead or dying of nvCJD. Since the disease has a virtually invisible incubation period that might last decades, it won't be known for many years whether the final toll will be in the dozens, hundreds or thousands of human lives. In the United States, efforts to identify, monitor and prevent human and animal deaths from TSE diseases have been grossly inadequate, despite the fact that people, deer, elk and sheep in the United States are dying from these diseases, known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in people, chronic wasting disease in deer and elk, and scrapie in sheep.

CJD in humans in the United States appears to be often misdiagnosed as Alzheimer's or other types of fatal dementia, and seems much more prevalent than admitted by government agencies. Given the very long invisible incubation period of this 100 percent fatal disease, and that fact that it can be spread by infected medical instruments and is almost impossible to kill by heat and disinfection, the consequences of failing to identify the disease are extremely serious.

The first legal petition demands that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) aggressively look for CJD in humans and make CJD a reportable and monitored disease. This petition is also being filed in all fifty states with the appropriate state health officials.

The second legal petition demands that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) close serious loopholes in U.S. animal feed regulations which currently allow types of cannibalistic feeding practices known to cause and spread "mad cow" type diseases in animals and humans. For instance, current U.S. regulations allow calves to be fed milk replacer containing cattle blood protein, and pigs to be fed back to pigs and cattle. U.S. sheep infected with scrapie, a "mad cow" type disease, can be used for pet and pig feed in the United States.

Commenting on today's legal actions, Bradley Miller, National Director of the Humane Farming Association stated, "TSEs represent a potentially devastating threat to both human and animal health. Our government's response to date has been shamefully inadequate. These legal actions provide a blueprint by which federal and state agencies can act decisively to prevent a TSE epidemic in this country."

Dr. Michael Hansen, Research Associate of Consumer's Union commented, "The current increase of TSEs in wildlife and humans shows that the time for effective prevention may be running out. The federal agencies must immediately take action to avert what could become a very significant public health problem."

Andrew Kimbrell, public interest attorney and Director of the Center for Food Safety, stated, "Given what we know now, it is unconscionable that the CDC is not strictly monitoring this disease, and that the FDA is still allowing the feeding of blood and other animal byproducts to animals. The federal agencies are obviously putting the interests of agribusiness companies ahead of their duty to protect the public from this terrible and fatal group of diseases. We will go to court if necessary to ensure that the agencies do their job in protecting human health and animal welfare."

  Contact: Andrew Kimbrell, D'Arcy Kemnitz (202) 547-9359.