Cattle Stun Gun May Heighten Madcow" Risk

By Leila Corcoran - Broadcasted on BICNews 25 July 1997

WASHINGTON (Reuter) - A stun gun used on cattle before slaughter cansend brain tissue scattering throughout the animal, which could provide a route for madcow disease to spread to humans, a consumer group said Thursday.

There have been no documented cases of madcow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), in the United States, but the consumers group said the use of stun guns posed a potentially deadly risk in Europe.

"These new discoveries mean that some of the steaks and hamburgers Amercans eat today may contain small bits of brain matter," said David Schardt, nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

"Now, since BSE has not been detected here, there is no known risk at this time. But where BSE does exist in cattle, such meat with specks of brain tissue in it could be a deadly meal," he said.

In an unusual news conference, the Washington-based consumer watchdog group was joined by meat industry representatives who said they planned to sponsor a study on stunning methods later in the year.

"If a problem is found either with stunning in general or with particular methods or machinery, we will move swiftly to address it," said Janet Collins, a vice president at the American Meat Institute, an industry trade group.

Brain tissue and spinal cord are the most infectious part of an animal with BSE, which eats deadly holes in an infected animal's brain. A world panic over beef was triggered after an outbreak of the disease among British herds in the late 1980s.

Scientists remain unsure whether madcow disease can be transmitted to humans, but say they are concerned about an inexplicable rise in the number of cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, an incurable brain disease in humans.

BSE has never been detected in U.S. cattle herds and federal health officials have erected a series of "firewalls" against it, including banningfeeding ruminant by-products -- parts of other farm animals -- to cattle, a practice believed to have spread BSE in Britain.

Before cattle are slaughtered, they are stunned with a shot to the head to make them unconscious and to protect workers. Stunning is required by law so the animal feels no pain when it dies.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest said recent research at Texas A&M University and by Canada's Food Inspection Agency found a method called pneumatic stunning delivered a force so explosive that it splattered brain tissue throughout a cow's system.

"Our research shows that it's possible that microscopic particles of brain matter can be circulated to the lungs, liver and maybe other sites," Tam Garland, a research veterinarian at Texas A&M said in CSPI's July newsletter. "The implications are frightening."

Some 30 to 40 percent of American cattle are stunned by pneumatic guns, which fire a metal bolt into a cow's brain followed by a pulverizing burst of 150 pounds of air pressure.

The method is popular at larger U.S. meat plants because it renders cattle insensible longer than other techniques, erasing concerns the animals might revive before they are killed and cause havoc in a long processing line. Pneumatic guns are not used widely abroad.

Meat industry officials said they started considering a study on stunning methods several months ago after learning of the research. They said they planned to tap U.S. and Canadian government officials for advice on how to conduct the study and hoped to have results by the end of the year.

"No one wants the U.S. to remain BSE free more than the nation's one million beef producers," said Gary Weber of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.