A year ago today, many Americans were wondering if they could still find a fresh turkey to replace the Christmas beef roasts sitting in their refrigerators. Fortunately, consumer faith has...

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A year ago today, many Americans were wondering if they could still find a fresh turkey to replace the Christmas beef roasts sitting in their refrigerators.

Fortunately, consumer faith has rebounded from the initial shock of the first U.S. case of mad-cow disease found in Central Washington — and for good reason. No other cases have been found, and new actions added to earlier U.S. precautions have reduced even further the risk of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in beef. Some of the 50 countries that banned U.S. beef are taking steps to restart imports.
But more needs to be done.

After the first U.S. case was found, beef from sick cows and riskier tissues, such as spinal cords from healthier animals, were banned from the food chain. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also boosted its animal testing surveillance program tenfold.

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With the testing of some 220,000 animals more than two-thirds complete, regulators expect to be able to determine if the disease exists in one in 10 million animals. Consumers should take heart that three animals with suspicious tests were confirmed not to have mad cow.

The sick cow found in Mabton was imported from Canada before the U.S. banned such live imports and was believed to have contracted the disease from contaminated feed there. The U.S. banned high-risk animal parts from feed in 1997.

On the negative side, a promised system to track cattle has been slow to be implemented. Now mostly voluntary, the system won’t be fully in place until 2006.

Disappointingly, 11 months after Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson promised to close loopholes in animal-feed rules, there remains no prohibition against the potentially risky practices. Among them is prohibiting from animal feed mammalian blood, poultry litter and “plate waste” from restaurants.

The Food and Drug Administration needs to issue the rules — or explain why it is not doing so. Some consumer groups suggest livestock groups have been able to block them with political pressure, but agriculture leaders in Washington state, where the diseased animal was found, support the changes.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell has been urging the FDA to issue the rules since last spring, but she also has introduced legislation that would do the same.

Thanks to the indications from testing and other precautions, Christmas revelers can rest assured if beef roast is on tomorrow’s menu. But the FDA should keep its promise to close the feed loopholes, assuring that any feed consumed by American cattle is as safe as possible.