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Agriculture News:  Euro-Biotech, Chronic Wasting Disease, Peanut Allergies - 2002-07-21

In Agriculture news - American farmers criticize new European rules governing bio-engineered food products, Bush Administration officials send Congress a plan to control a lethal animal disease in the American West and food experts say peanut allergies are on the rise in the United States.

A leading U.S. farm group is criticizing a European plan to toughen labeling and tracing rules on foods made with genetically engineered ingredients.

"We believe the European Union is simply doing this to restrict our trade into their market, and we consider that an unfair trade practice," said Dick Newpher, a spokesman for the five-million member American Farm Bureau Federation.

He says that with a substantial and growing percentage of U.S. food exports derived from gene-altered crops, Europe's new biotech food rules constitute a direct assault on U.S. farm trade. The Farm Bureau official says the rules could be used to block the $6.3 billion worth of agricultural exports the United States ships to Europe every year - a serious blow to U.S. farmers.

European Union officials and leading environmental groups defend the new rules as a prudent way to control and monitor the sales of genetically engineered foods, which are still controversial and in some cases prohibited in European markets. But the American Farm Bureau's Dick Newpher says the new rules point up what he calls a European double standard.

"The Europeans specifically exempted enzymes and bacteria and yeasts that are derived from biotechnology, and we feel that because they use those biotechnology products in the making of wine and cheese in the European Union, that they specifically exempted them from labeling just to sidestep their own regulation," he said.

Mr. Newpher says the Farm Bureau is urging the Bush administration to avert a potential trade disaster for American farmers by protesting the European food regulations to the World Trade Organization.

After four months of study, a Bush Administration task force has sent the U.S. Congress a plan for controlling the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease, a fatal brain ailment that's been infecting growing numbers of both wild and domesticated elk and deer in the United States.

Although Chronic Wasting Disease is similar to Mad Cow Disease and its fatal human equivalent, CJD, there is no conclusive evidence linking it to those other ailments. Mad Cow Disease decimated British cattle herds in the 1990s, and has continued to turn up in isolated herds throughout Europe and Asia. Human CJD, believed to have been caused by eating the meat of infected cattle, has killed more than 100 people in Europe over the past decade.

The Chronic Wasting Disease task force, headed by officials of the U.S. Agriculture and Interior Departments, proposed a nationwide diagnostic, research and surveillance program. Bobby Accord, co-chair of the task force, says the plan also calls for a massive public education campaign, focused on helping Western sportsmen know where or where NOT to hunt.

"They should not be frightened away from hunting by the existence of this disease," he said. "I think our surveillance efforts are going to identify areas where it is endemic, and I think we are going to be able to share information with hunters this fall about where the disease exists, and the states are going to be doing a lot of sampling through this surveillance process."

Hunters are urged to report any signs of the disease among wild game, such as lethargy or paralysis. As Chronic Wasting Disease has spread among elk and deer in the American Midwest and Great Plains over the past few years, concerns have grown that the disease could threaten the U.S. cattle herd, which has so far remained free of any brain-wasting illness.

In case you'd wondered why they don't serve peanuts on U.S. airlines anymore, the answer is simple. Studies show that allergies to peanuts are on the rise among Americans. Food allergies in general cause about 29,000 emergency room visits each year in the United States, and about 200 deaths. But peanut allergy is provoking special health concerns.

"Peanut allergy is the number one cause of food allergies in the United States, and probably the leading cause of severe reactions as well," says University of Nebraska food allergy specialist Steve Taylor. He says at least one percent of Americans - that's about three million people - suffer from peanut allergies. The problem has been reported for many years, but the number and severity of cases has been rising steadily over the past two decades. No one knows precisely why, but Mr. Taylor has a theory.

"I think part of that is related to the fact that we introduce peanuts into the diets of American children at a pretty early age," he said. "In cultures where peanuts are not introduced so early in life, peanut allergy seems to be less common than it is here in the United States."

Mr. Taylor says the severe and sometimes deadly reactions some people have to even tiny amounts of peanuts usually take the form of sudden asthmatic episodes or blocked windpipes. Research has shown that children whose parents are allergic are more likely to have food allergies themselves. Most pediatricians caution against feeding peanuts to any child younger than two.

For those who know they're allergic, U.S. food labeling laws have made life easier: they require food packages to note clearly if peanuts or peanut oil are among the ingredients. And of course, airline and hotel food services no longer offer customers those little packs of free peanuts.

Meanwhile, crop engineers are working to develop new varieties of peanuts that lack allergenic compounds. But the University of Nebraska's Steve Taylor says those new, safer peanuts are still several years away.