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AMERICAN MORNING

Interview with Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman

Aired December 31, 2003 - 07:10   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: The Agriculture Department has imposed new restrictions on meat packers, trying to make sure that mad cow does not find its way into the human food chain. The government says that cattle that cannot walk, known as downers, are not to be slaughtered.
Joining us this morning from Washington to talk more about these new precautions is U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman.

Secretary Veneman, good morning. Nice to have you. Thanks for joining us.

ANN VENEMAN, SECRETARY OF AGRICULTURE: Good morning. Nice to be with you today.

O'BRIEN: Thank you very much.

Yesterday, you banned the sale of that downer cattle, and many people have said, well, that's really just the tip of the iceberg, because since it's a disease that can incubate between four to six years, the cattle that's actually visibly sick is just a small percentage of the cows that have mad cow disease. What do you make of that criticism?

VENEMAN: Well, I think that's unjustified criticism. We have had a number of measures in place in this country for several years to mitigate the possibility of mad cow spreading in this country. We have found a single case, but the fact of the matter is, is we've had risk assessments performed by Harvard University, which said that even if we did have a small number of cases in this country that the likelihood of it spreading or getting into any kind of human health problem is very, very small.

And we believe the precautions that have been put in place have been effective. We have a single find. We have been able to remove the product from the system that is most at risk, and we announced the measures yesterday to further protect an already strong food safety system in this country.

O'BRIEN: In Great Britain, they go farther than that, though. They test every single animal that is slaughtered. Why not do that to protect the American public?

VENEMAN: Well, again, Great Britain had a much different situation than we do and did here in the United States in that they had literally thousands of infected animals with human health risks. Their infectivity in this disease happened before very much was known about it. We learned from their experience. We put precautions in place such as the ruminant-to-ruminant feed ban in 1997. This has helped to protect the U.S. food supply from this disease.

We've all learned about this disease since it was first discovered several years ago in Europe, and so I think we've learned from the European experience. And, again, I'm confident that we have measures in place and the additional measures that we announced yesterday will be even more protective of our food supply in this country.

O'BRIEN: Your chief of staff is a former lobbyist for the industry, and many people have said, well, that relationship is helping to shape policy when it should not. How do you respond to that?

VENEMAN: Well, again, we're doing what's in the best interests of public health. We are doing everything we can to protect the food supply, and I can tell you that we're making decisions based upon sound science and good public policy given the circumstances that we are now in. We had a single find of BSE in this country, and we believe that what we're doing is appropriate action taken in an abundance of caution under the circumstances, and I believe it's the right thing to do.

And I also believe that it's the right thing to do to maintain strong consumer confidence in our food system, and I believe that the consumer should have strong confidence in our food system.

O'BRIEN: Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman joining us this morning. Secretary Veneman, thank you very much.

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