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Dairy industry seeks $1.3 billion to kill diseased cows

WASHINGTON -- May 11, 2000 -- The dairy industry is asking Congress for $1.3 billion to send almost 4 percent of U.S. dairy cattle to rendering plants in an effort to control the spread of a bacterium that some scientists contend is linked to Crohn's disease in humans.

The National Milk Producers Federation says its plan is intended to deal with an animal disease problem, and could pay dairy producers $1,500 each for about 330,000 infected animals, and should result in America's 10 million dairy cattle being free of the bacterium in seven years.

Christopher Galen, a spokesman for the milk producers, said the program's aim is to reduce levels of infection of the mysterious bacterium called mycobacterium paratuberculosis, which has been found in one or more cows involving 22 percent of the U.S. dairy herd.

Galen said the industry doesn't believe the problem is a public health issue. "This is an animal health issue," he said. The same tuberculosis-like bacterium that causes Johne's disease in cattle has been found in the bowels of some human sufferers of Crohn's disease, a chronic bowel disease that has been found in more than 500,000 Americans.

But there's a contentious debate among scientists over how people are getting the bacterium, and if it is coming from animal products like milk or hamburger, or from other sources like contaminated drinking water or vegetables grown from manure-treated soil. DNA fingerprinting shows the bacterium in humans is the same bovine strain as that found in cattle. Preliminary results of British tests, released in January, also showed that the bacterium can survive pasteurization, prompting the U.S. Agriculture Department to re-examine 1999 tests that showed pasteurization kills the bacterium.

About half of American ground meat comes from dairy cattle. Chandler Keys, vice president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said his group is lobbying Congress to kill the dairy program, fearing that it will drain money away from programs involving "mad cow" disease and foot-and-mouth disease.

"This is a daunting, a daunting enterprise," Keys said of the plan to reduce Johne's disease. He said there is no reliable test for Johne's infection, and the cattle industry believes the funds would be better spent on research. The House Agriculture livestock subcommittee is expected to hold a hearing on the proposal later this month.

But Michael Collins, a University of Wisconsin veterinarian and president of the International Association for Paratuberculosis, said the infection of U.S. cattle herds is increasing, and a national plan is needed.

"In the absence of any control mechanisms, it will continue to increase," Collins said. He said restructuring the U.S. dairy industry, which is resulting in larger herds of cows, seems to be contributing to its spread because farmers are bringing contaminated cattle into their herds. The main way cattle become infected is through the bacterium being passed to calves through the diarrhea it causes in infected cattle, but Collins said it's not easily detected because it takes cattle several years to develop the clinical signs of the disease.

While the bacteria found in some Crohn's patients and Johne's cattle is the same, "the connection isn't that concrete," Collins said. He said scientists haven't yet shown how the agent infects people, or how the agent gets there.

Bill Schulaw, an Ohio University veterinarian who serves on a national Johne's committee, said there's sufficient concern about the disease that the government should take steps to reduce its incidence.

He said Johne's is already a very serious animal disease, which erodes farmers' profits because sick animals don't produce as much milk. As for the connection with human diseases, "There's a lot of controversy out there," he said. "But no real consensus."

Other physicians and interest groups maintain there's now sufficient scientific evidence to show that dairy products can carry the bacterium. Massachusetts physician Michael Greger said he was surprised by the dairy industry plan. "This really is a landmark event," he said.

Greger got involved with the disease when trying to figure out what was infecting his Crohn's patients, and said he reviewed veterinary journals before concluding the evidence of a connection between the human and animal diseases that he suspects comes from drinking milk.

"Paratuberculosis bacteria seem to cause disease in almost every species of animal so far studied. It's reasonable to assume the same might happen in humans," Greger said.

Some of those inflicted with Crohn's disease also insist there is a connection.

Cheryl Miller, co-executive director of the Paratuberculosis Awareness and Research Foundation, got involved in the debate after her eldest daughter came down with Crohn's 12 years ago. Miller, a Dayton, Ohio accountant, said she has no background in science, but got involved reviewing science journals to help her daughter.

"I'm just a mom, but I am very, very concerned now that I have reviewed all of the evidence. It sure looks plausible, it sure looks very plausible," Miller said.

Christine Rossiter, extension veterinarian at Cornell University's diagnostic laboratories, said the only conclusion she can reach from the literature "is that we don't know," but that some association appears to exist between the human and animal diseases.

She said even that association should be sufficient for the cattle industry to be concerned, and ensure the public trust in the safety of food is kept.

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