As fears of mad cow disease rippled across the country three months ago, the nation's top health official announced stringent rules that would prohibit farmers from giving cows potentially high-risk feed, saying Americans must "never be satisfied with the status quo."
But, in fact, the status quo remains.
Despite the urgent tone of that January announcement, the proposed rules have yet to go into effect, and farmers can use the risky feed with impunity.
Instead, a series of bureaucratic complications and scientific questions -- prompted by complaints from industry groups and outside safety specialists -- arose within the US Food and Drug Administration. Review committees were formed and continue work to this day on issues such as how to dispose of the prohibited feed.
To become enforceable, the rules must be published in the Federal Register, a daily compendium of federal government actions. In January, federal health officials said it would be only a matter of days. But, to date, they have not appeared.
"We're getting closer and closer all the time, but I can't tell you exactly when it will be ready, . . . hopefully not too much longer," said Stephen Sundlof, the FDA's veterinary medicine director. "The fact that we're being very deliberative about getting it right shows that we do consider it important."
But Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the nonprofit Center for Food Safety, said: "The longer they take to publish them, the longer the loopholes exist . . . The longer the delay, the more negligent the agency is in preventing [mad cow] from appearing."
In December, the first-ever animal with mad cow disease in the United States turned up at a Washington state farm, generating considerable public concern. The cow had been imported from Canada, where mad cow had surfaced before.
US health officials reacted quickly.
In mid-January, the US Agriculture Department published rules keeping risk-prone cow parts out of the human food system and strengthening farm inspection rules.
On Jan. 26, US Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson held a news conference announcing the cattle-feed rules.
The government's scientists, he said, recommended that farmers be prohibited from feeding cow blood, chicken waste, and poultry parts to cows. All could potentially carry mad cow disease, also called bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE.
"We must never be satisfied with the status quo where the health and safety of our animals and our population is at stake," said Thompson.
BSE involves the spread of infectious proteins that attack afflicted cows' nervous systems. The proteins clump in the brain, spinal cord, and nerve tissues. These parts were once used in cow feed. Infected tissue made its way into other cows, which in turn entered the human food chain. In the 1990s, about 150 people in England who ate infected beef developed a form of Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, a neural condition that causes violent tremors and eventually death.
Most of the parts have been out of the bovine food system for some time. But farmers continue to feed cows blood and chicken parts, which could carry BSE as well because some chickens receive feed containing cow parts.
In addition to banning this type of feed, Thompson announced that meat and parts from disabled cows, which are considered to be at higher risk of infection with BSE, could not be used in dietary supplements, cosmetics, and certain food products.
Shortly after, a panel of international specialists consulted by the FDA contended that the rules were not stringent enough, said federal health officials. In addition, the FDA was legally mandated to perform a time-consuming environmental study on how the chicken parts not used for feed would be disposed of. The poultry industry said chickens not fed any cow parts should be allowed to become part of cow feed. And farmers said certain parts of cow blood were important in maintaining the health of the herd, including in the manufacture of cattle vaccines.
The FDA continues to study these issues.
"Of all our regulatory options, which will have the greatest effect in reducing the risk to cattle and at the same time avoid unintended consequences?" said Sundlof.
"There's a lot of different meetings and discussions going on at different levels."
Raja Mishra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.