WAMEGO Feedlot operator Buck Peddicord knows his success depends on the health of the beef cattle being fattened in his pens.
Peddicord and other cattle producers say they would never consider violating a 1997 Food and Drug Administration ban on feeding cattle parts back to cattle, a ban enacted to guard against the possible spread of mad cow disease.
Feedlot operators submit to random inspections, and many sign affidavits required by buyers that their animals were not fed beef bone meal.
Doing otherwise, they say, would risk disaster.
"It doesn't make sense to do it for the economics," Peddicord said.
Doran Junek, a rancher in Brewster and executive director of the Kansas Cattlemen's Assn., put it more plainly: "The liability you would set yourself up for would wipe you out of the cattle business and would devastate the cattle industry."
The discovery last week of a mad cow case in Washington state has put the spotlight on the 1997 rule. Federal officials, and some outside observers, say the ban is working, but some consumer groups question how well it is enforced and say the regulation doesn't go far enough.
Cattle byproducts, serving as protein supplements, may still be fed to animals such as chickens and pigs. Those animals may in turn wind up being fed to cattle, which some people see as a loophole. The FDA, however, has said there's no scientific evidence to extend the ban.
Most beef cattle producers use plant products like soybean or cottonseed meal as protein sources at some point, said Bo Reagan, a spokesman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. in Denver.
"We don't take any chances," said Jim Keller, owner of an Oakley feedlot that handles up to 40,000 cattle. Like most feedlot operators, he makes his own feed.
Keller adds soybean meal and manmade supplements to the feed. He has the protein supplements tested weekly for quality control and quarterly for any animal bone meal.
Like other feedlot operators, he signs an affidavit required by the buyer -- in his case Tyson Foods Inc. -- stating that no cattle being sold were fed beef bone meal. Tyson, the nation's largest beef processor, has been verifying that all its producers comply with the law since early 2001, spokesman Gary Mickelson said.
"Everybody does it," Peddicord said.
Feed mills scrutinized
The FDA focuses its inspections on feed mills to make sure that cattle byproducts are used only in feed destined for other animals, like poultry and swine. Inspectors sometime take feed samples for analysis. They also examine records to see where the feed came from and see that all labeling is correct. Feed containing beef parts must carry a caution label.
Steven Soloman, FDA deputy director for regional affairs, said annual checks were made of the 500 feed mills that use cattle parts in feed for other animals. He said the agency found a 99 percent compliance rate; the remaining 1 percent were noncompliant for minor violations such as record-keeping errors.
In one case, a feed company in Tacoma, Wash., admitted in a consent decree in July that it violated FDA regulations designed to prevent the spread of the disease.
FDA claims questioned
Carol Tucker Foreman, director of food policy for the Washington-based Consumer Federation of America, questioned the FDA's high compliance rate.
"I can't say I am confident that is the case because I don't believe there is anybody out there really checking on it on a regular basis," she said. "They could be doing a lot more checking to make sure people are what they are supposed to be doing."
She said the government needed to ban byproducts from cattle and similar animals from all livestock feed.
"It would improve public confidence because I believe there would be one less area where people would raise legitimate concerns about a weakness in the system," she said.
People who work in animal health and food safety generally praised enforcement of the FDA ban.
"No system is 100 percent, but this is working," said Nolan Hartwig, an Iowa State University veterinarian.