WASHINGTON -- American cattle are eating chicken litter, cattle blood, and restaurant leftovers that could help transmit mad cow disease -- a gap in the US defense against the infection that the Bush administration promised to close nearly 18 months ago.
''Once the cameras were turned off and the media coverage dissipated, then it's been business as usual, no real reform, just keep feeding slaughterhouse waste," said John Stauber, an activist and coauthor of ''Mad Cow USA: Could the Nightmare Happen Here?"
''The entire US policy is designed to protect the livestock industry's access to slaughterhouse waste as cheap feed," he said.
The government is now investigating another possible case of mad cow disease in the United States. The beef cow had been tested and declared free of the disease last November, but new tests came up positive, and a laboratory in England is conducting more tests.
The Food and Drug Administration promised to tighten feed rules shortly after the first case of mad cow disease was confirmed in the United States, in a Washington state cow in December 2003.
''Today we are bolstering our BSE [mad cow disease] firewalls to protect the public," Mark McClellan, then-FDA commissioner, said on Jan. 26, 2004. The FDA said it would ban blood, poultry litter, and restaurant plate waste from cattle feed and require feed mills to use separate equipment to make cattle feed.
However, last July, the FDA scrapped those restrictions. McClellan's replacement, Lester Crawford, said an international team of analysts assembled by the Agriculture Department was calling for even stronger rules and that the FDA would produce new restrictions in line with those recommendations.
Today, the FDA still has not done what it promised to do. The agency declined interviews, saying in a statement only that there is no timeline for new restrictions.
''It's just a lot of talk," said Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, a senior House Democrat on food and farm issues. ''It's a lot of talk, a lot of press releases, and no action."
Unlike other infections, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, does not spread through the air. As far as scientists know, cows get the disease only by eating brain and other nerve tissues of already infected cows.
Ground-up cattle remains, left over from slaughtering operations, were used as protein in cattle feed until 1997, when an outbreak of mad cow cases in Britain prompted the United States to order the feed industry to quit doing it. Unlike Britain, however, the US feed ban has exceptions.
For example, it is legal to put ground-up cattle remains in chicken feed. Feed that spills from cages mixes with chicken waste on the ground, then is swept up for use in cattle feed.
Scientists believe the BSE protein will survive the feed-making process and may even survive the trip through a chicken's gut.
That amounts to the legal feeding of some cattle protein back to cattle, said Linda Detwiler, a former Agriculture Department veterinarian who led the department's work on mad cow disease for several years.
''I would stipulate it's probably not a real common thing, and the amounts are pretty small," Detwiler said. But still, if cattle protein is in the system, it is being fed back to cattle, she said in an interview.
Cattle protein can also be fed to chickens, pigs, and household pets, which presents the risk of accidental contamination in a feed mill.
The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said last month that a feed mill, which it did not identify, accidentally mixed banned protein into cattle feed. By the time inspectors discovered the problem and the mill issued a recall, potentially contaminated cattle feed had been on the market for about a year, the office said.
Rendering companies, which process slaughter waste, contend that new restrictions would be costly and create hazards from leftover waste. They say changes are not justified.