BOONE, Iowa Watching his Black Angus steers shove one another toward two long troughs, rancher Marshall King knows that his livelihood and the health of the U.S. beef industry depend on the safety of the coarse yellow feed doled out to cattle like his across the nation.
Mad cow diseasea brain-wasting illness believed to be spread through feed containing infected cattle products in Europehas not appeared in the United States. Federal regulators have devised layers of protection to keep it out, or to contain a possible outbreak.
But the feed production and distribution system is vulnerable at many points, regulators say.
Millions of tons of cattle feed are processed at thousands of mills across the country. Along the way from field to feeding trough, the ingredients make several stops, crossing paths with ingredients intended for other feeds. At every step, there is the danger that they could be tainted by cattle products, which are allowed in feeds meant for other animals, such as hogs.
A supply truck leaves the Purina Mills plant January 31, 2001, in Gonzales, Texas, where a type of feed that was banned in the wake of mad cow disease deaths in Europe may have accidentally been distributed to a local feedlot. More than 1,200 cattle on the feedlot near Floresville, Texas, have been quarantined amid questions about whether they ate the feed that has been banned for cattle by the Food and Drug Administration. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)
At the feedlot, ranchers do their own final mixing, combining corn, hay, soybeans and other additives.
Stringent federal guidelines are designed to ensure that feed is handled safely at every step, but a shortage of inspectors means many producers are never checked. There is no routine screening of feed for contaminants.
If a cow shows symptoms similar to mad cow, its brain is sent to a U.S. Department of Agriculture laboratory in Ames, Iowa, for examination.
"The system is so fragile," said Larry Blunt, head of the feed division for the Iowa Department of Agriculture. Blunt is confident his state's mills have been vigilantall have been inspectedbut admits, "Human error could happen anywhere at any time."
The system's weakness was exposed last week, when Purina Mills Inc. admitted that a herd of roughly 1,200 cows in Texas received feed containing traces of cattle meat and bone meal.
The news set off alarm among U.S. beef producersespecially in Iowa, America's largest feed-producing statewho fear that consumer hysteria, if not the disease itself, could cripple the beef industry.
That was evident last week, when cattle futures dipped amid news that candy marketed by a Chicago company contained gelatin derived from European cattle. And this week, a Maryland physician questioned whether consumers can be sure that herbal supplementsmany of which contain animal partsare safe.
In Europe, where mad cow has killed thousands of head of livestock and has been linked to at least 83 human deaths, the disease is thought to have spread by cattle eating feed containing meat and bone meal of diseased cows.
Allowing meat products into cattle feed would not pose a danger in itself as long as mad cow remains overseas. But if America falls prey to the disease, it could spread through the feed chain of the Midwest.
Since 1989 the FDA has raised an escalating series of barriers to any importation of European beef products. As an additional precaution, U.S. regulators in 1997 banned the use in cattle feed of any meat and bone meal from animals susceptible to brain-wasting illnessescows, sheep, goats, deer and elk. Cattle protein can be used in hog, horse and poultry feed, however.
Iowa alone produces mountains of feed, 16 million tons annually. The most common ingredientscorn and soybeansare grown in the state. After harvesting, much of the grain is sent by trucks to processors who mill it and then distribute it to ranchers.
In a second process, a protein source, usually a hog byproduct such as bone meal, is added with vitamins and minerals to the cattle feed.
At King's ranch in central Iowa, snowdrift-size piles of hay, gluten, soybean and corn products sit next to a grain silo that holds a mixture of vitamins and protein.
Twice daily, King or his son Jon drives a flatbed mixing truck that melds the ingredients and then distributes the feed into troughs several blocks long.
Of the 25 pounds a day each one of King's steers consumes, less than half a pound constitutes a protein supplement, usually including a small amount of hog byproducts, he said.
King, 70, trusts that the protein is free of cattle products because he trusts the integrity of the grain mills and distributors.
"These are people I have been dealing with for years," said King, who has been fattening cattle here for half a century. "I know they want to do things right."
But there aren't enough people checking to be sure things are done right. In Iowa, it took a half a dozen state inspectors nearly three years to crisscross the state and visit more than 750 producers and distributors.
East Friesian sheep stand in a pasture in Greensboro, Vt., on July 21, 2000. The U.S. Department of Agriculture can seize two flocks of imported sheep suspected of carrying a form of so-called mad cow disease, a federal judge ruled Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2001. U.S. District Judge J. Garvan Murtha said the sheep's owners must comply with an order issued last summer by former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman to give up their sheep. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)
A survey released last month by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found that hundreds of producers in the last three years have violated federal regulations.
In the survey, involving 1,593 mills, nearly 50 percent lacked proper warning labels and 26 percent had no systems to prevent accidental mixing of meat and bone meal into cattle feed.
The findings so disturbed the FDA that it has threatened to close down, fine and in some cases prosecute feed makers if the violations are not corrected. Last week, representatives of the feed and cattle industry met with federal regulators to assure them and the public that they intend to comply.
Cattle producers nonetheless contend that Americans have nothing to worry about.
"Mad cow is not in our system," said Joel Brinkmeyer, executive vice president of the Iowa Cattlemen's Association. "There is nothing to spread."
None of the violations found by regulators involved improper mixing of animal feed. U.S. scientists are still not convinced that mad cow can be spread through the feed system.
Researchers in Iowa tainted cattle feed with infectious material from sheep because scientists in Europe believed mad cow might have originated in sick sheep. But after studying the intentionally infected herd for several years, the American researchers saw no evidence of disease.
Only later, when serum from the sick sheep was injected into the brains of cows, did the animals get sick.
"There is so much we don't know about mad cow and its transmission," said Harley Moon, a veterinary professor at Iowa State University who supervised the study for the U.S. government. "In Great Britain, the feed system seems like the suspect. But no one can say for sure."
So far, the main U.S. lookout point for the disease is a cramped laboratory in Ames where USDA scientists examine the brains of cows, looking for the pattern of brain damage that experts have linked with mad cow. The lab technicians study samples from roughly 20 cows a week and have yet to find a trace of mad cow in more than a decade of research.
What seems to motivate many feed suppliers in Iowa is fearnot necessarily of mad cow itself, but of what could happen to their business if the public perceives that beef is risky.
At the Land O'Lakes Farmland feed mill in Ft. Dodge, company officials said they process of separating ingredients is mechanized and computerized.
"It's not like someone can pull the wrong lever on a chute or something," said John Swanson, vice president for feed operations.
Farther west, in Carroll, feed distributor and mixer Bob Raue said his company has separate chutes for hog and cattle feed mixing. A set of posted guidelines for flushing the mixer with ground corn is within viewing of the worker running the machine at Juergens Produce and Feed.
"We believe in the safeguards we have in place," said Raue, who sells more than 50,000 tons of feed a year.
Glenn Kooima, owner of Anderson Feeds in Doon, Iowa, said that like many other small suppliers, he was not even aware of the regulations concerning record-keeping when state officials paid him a visit last year and cited him.
"They happened to hit me first," said Kooima, who supplies about 100 cattle and hog producers in his part of the state. The regulators found that Kooima's invoices had not included adequate warnings against feeding cattle products to other cattle.
The bureaucratic hassle has led Kooima and many other suppliers to drop cattle byproducts from all their livestock feed. Purina Mills decided to do so at all its plants after the contamination in Texas.
As an alternative protein source, feed mills use soybeans, pork products or a liquid protein made from non-animal ingredients.
In Illinois, state Department of Agriculture officials said compliance is improving among state feeders.
In 1998, the first year inspectors checked for compliance with the mad cow regulations, about half the state's suppliers were not even aware of the requirements, department officials said.
Only 6 percent of the 182 facilities inspected since July 1999 had violations.
Feed producers and farmers worry that the Texas scare is hurting the industry's reputation.
"These cattle producers are out here battling the elements, 20-below weather, and Peter Jennings is on the news talking about mad cow disease, scaring the death out of everyone," Kooima said. "It's discouraging that way."
Copyright 2001 Chicago Tribune