'Big Gun' government official needed to oversee U.S. animal disease programs

A National Academy of Sciences panel has said this week that one high ranking government official may be the best way to consolidate U.S. animal disease oversights in order to protect consumers from mad cow disease, bird flu and other serious animal ailments that can jump species.

The Academy's National Research Council, which advises the U.S. government on scientific and environmental matters, has heavily criticized the current animal health system as too complicated, at a time when new diseases are emerging and experts worry about bioterrorism targeted at the food supply.

At present more than 200 different U.S. government offices, seven Cabinet-level departments and hundreds of state and local agencies share the responsibility of regulating animal health.

The panel says the nation should establish a high-level, authoritative mechanism to strengthen the existing framework, and to coordinate interactions between the private sector and local, state and federal agencies.

According to the National Research Council panel led by Lonnie King, dean of veterinary medicine at Michigan State University, the agriculture secretary has been the main point-person for recent U.S. outbreaks of mad cow disease, chronic wasting disease and a less-virulent strain of avian influenza.

Almost three-quarters of animal diseases can infect humans, humans can contract a form of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, by eating infected meat.

Also the H5N1 strain of bird flu in chickens and ducks has been linked to more than 50 human deaths in Asia since 2003.

The World Health Organization has warned that bird flu could kill millions of people if it mutates and acquires the ability to pass easily from human to human.

The committee of independent scientists stopped short of recommending that the Bush administration should create a new senior job for overseeing animal diseases, as it has not yet completed its evaluation of the U.S. animal health system.

It said it is possible that the government could centralize authority by creating an interagency alliance or a domestic version of the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health (OIE).

The scientists found "significant delays" in developing and adopting new technologies that would help detect serious animal diseases, and the panel supports a more comprehensive livestock identification system, and more research to develop a "live animal" test for preventing mad cow disease.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) last month revised its testing program on the brains of slaughtered cattle to include a more sophisticated test already in use in Europe and Asia.

This action was only taken after it had misdiagnosed a "downer" Texas beef cow using its testing protocol in November, and the animal tested positive for the disease last month using the more sophisticated test.

The committee says that instance raises questions about the type and accuracy of diagnostic tests used by USDA.

The committee was also concerned about the steady decline of veterinarians in federal and state agencies, and says the work force on the frontlines of animal care is not adequately educated and trained to deal with animal disease issues.

The USDA is already predicting a shortfall of several hundred veterinarians on its staff by 2007, as more professionals are attracted to caring for pets and companion animals rather than livestock.

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