WASHINGTON -- U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns announced his agency will boost the budget for scientific research into mad cow disease and related maladies by $2 million, on top of the $10 million already earmarked for 2005.
The need for research into bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, is "no more critical than our response to BSE," Johanns said at the annual meeting of the Food Safety Summit here.
The specter of mad cow disease entering the U.S. food supply from a foreign country, as well as concerns from Japan that U.S. meat could be contaminated with the fatal microbes, continue to plague the Bush administration, which is ratcheting up efforts to combat both problems.
The increased focus on BSE comes as the administration is fighting U.S. ranchers' attempts to keep Canadian beef from being sold in this country.
Early this month, a federal judge in Montana sided with local cattle ranchers and blocked the U.S. Department of Agriculture's plans to reopen the border to Canadian beef under 30 months of age. The U.S. Senate subsequently voted to overturn USDA's plan, just before imports were scheduled to resume.
The administration views the ranchers' efforts to maintain the ban on Canadian beef as a way to bolster U.S. beef prices.
Johanns said ranchers would "probably" achieve their short-term goal. In the meantime, however, the ban on Canadian exports to the United States is forcing the Canadian beef packing market to restructure and expand.
At the same time, U.S. packing companies have laid off workers and reduced shifts in response to the loss of work.
U.S. meat packing jobs won't return "once you put the processing on the other line" in Canada, Johanns warned.
Johanns sidestepped any criticism, when asked by a summit participant about former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson's recent comments about being surprised there hasn't been a terrorist attack against the U.S. food supply.
Instead, Johanns cited various anti-bioterrorism efforts the United States has implemented.
"I can say without hesitation we have a safe food supply [and] we are doing so many things right in our efforts [to protect it]," he said.
Lester Crawford, acting commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, detailed various anti-terrorism efforts directed at protecting the food supply.
For example, FDA's so-called CARVER process assesses the vulnerability of each part, or "critical node," of the food production supply chain.
A food safety summit would not seem to be the venue for discussing the government's response to obesity problems. Yet the topic came up for discussion. Crawford reviewed the agency's recent recommendations from its Obesity Working Group.
As a result, the agency is launching a "Calories Count" campaign focused specifically on children,a particularly vulnerable group impacted by the obesity epidemic.
Crawford said focus groups cited meals eaten at restaurants, including supermarket delis, as a key source of excessive calories. The FDA's education campaign will encourage businesses to post nutrition information with their menus.
In addition, FDA throughout the year will meet with industry groups, including food processors, to refine its anti-obesity education campaign, "with the goal of both advancing knowledge about any relationships between consumption of away-from-home foods and overweight/obesity," he said.