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FDA advised to look at mad cow disease risk from gelatin

ingredients April 25, 1997
Web posted at: 12:06 a.m. EDT (0406 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Federal regulators are looking at whether any risk exists in the use of gelatin from countries where mad cow disease exists.

Think gelatin, and Jell-O wiggles to mind. But the substance that aids in congealment crops up in a wide range of products, including makeup and skin creams, cake mixes and gummy bears, vitamins, gel caps used for drugs and even vaccines. Gelatin is derived from the skin and bones of cattle and other animals.

An advisory panel to the Food and Drug Administration heard testimony Wednesday that most of the gelatin produced in the United States is made from pig skins, which are not considered a risk. Some comes from cattle hide and bones.

"I think that we are talking about a very, very small risk -- but not zero," said panel chairman Dr. Paul Brown of the National Institutes of Health.


Nonetheless, the committee voted to recommend that the FDA take a closer look at gelatin imported from countries where mad cow disease is known to exist.

There is no proof that gelatin carries BSE

Currently, FDA regulations prohibit the use of brains and spinal cords of cows from countries where mad cow disease or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) has been found. Those organs are considered highly infectious.

But gelatin is exempted from U.S. regulations, because there is no evidence BSE can be transmitted to humans through the product.

BSE countries include Britain, France, Switzerland, Portugal, the Republic of Ireland and the Netherlands. Britain effectively prohibits the use of gelatin from its cows, but other countries such as France export gelatin to the United States.

Fifteen cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, or CJD, the fatal human equivalent of BSE, have been reported in Britain. CJD is a fatal brain disease that resembles mad cow disease and makes its victims tremble. European health officials say there may be a link between the two illnesses.

The committee said while there is no evidence that BSE can be transmitted to humans from gelatin, the FDA should be allowed to regulate it if necessary.


"We felt as a group that it was very likely that gelatin is a safe product, and that it will prove to be a safe product when the evidence is in, but we felt it was best to be prudent until that evidence is presented to us," Brown said.

The U.S. gelatin industry, which contends gelatin is safe, said it was disappointed by the committee's vote, and cautioned any future attempt by the FDA to restrict gelatin imports could be a problem.

"There simply is not enough gelatin made in the United States to satisfy the domestic need," said George Mason of the Gelatin Manufacturers Institute of America.

Correspondent Eugenia Halsey contributed to this report.


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