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HELENA (AP) - New federal actions intended to guard against mad cow disease have been recommended for years by scientists and should have been taken much earlier, a prominent Montana researcher says.

George Carlson, senior scientist and director at the McLaughlin Research Institute in Great Falls, also said government officials aren't being completely honest by saying consumers are at "zero risk" of contracting the disease by eating cuts of meat from an infected animal.

The risk of contracting the disease by eating those cuts of meat is extremely low, but not nonexistent, Carlson said.

"I don't think the government should be talking about `zero risk,'" he told the Great Falls Tribune in a story published Monday. "It seems more like spin than leveling with people. I'm not trying to be alarmist, because the risk is minimal. But if it's minimal, let's say it's minimal."

Carlson has conducted research for 20 years on prions, a form of protein that causes harm when it becomes misshapen or "misfolded."

Such misshapen prions exist in cows and other animals afflicted with brain-wasting diseases, but scientists aren't sure how the malformed prions do their damage, he said.

Researchers at McLaughlin are trying to develop a possible blood test to detect these diseases in live animals, as well as examine the genetic makeup of animals that develop the disease.

"What you'd like to be able to do is identify animals that are infected early, to keep them out of the food supply," he said.

Right now, the United States tests only slaughtered animals thought to be at-risk for the disease. The slaughtered portions of those animals aren't held while the testing occurs.

The first case of mad cow disease in the United States was confirmed Dec. 23 in a dairy cow slaughtered Dec. 9 in Washington state. Federal officials recalled meat products from the batch that included the infected cow, although they said consumers were at little or no risk of becoming infected.

Nonetheless, several of the United States' key trading partners have banned U.S. beef and beef products.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced last week new safeguards against mad cow disease, including the holding of tested animals until the test results are returned and banning "downer" cattle from the human food chain.

Downer cattle are injured or possibly diseased cattle that cannot stand on their own.

Veneman also touted the United States' 1997 ban on using most cow parts in feed for cows, saying it has worked to prevent the spread of the disease. Scientists believe mad cow disease is spread when animals eat feed that contains brain, spinal and other tissue from other infected animals.

Carlton said the feed controls should have been imposed much earlier. And he contends they should be extended to ban cattle parts in any animal feed. Cow parts still are allowed in feed for pigs, chickens, horses and pets.

"I'm in favor of a total ban," he said. "I don't think animal parts should be rendered and put in the feed."

He also noted that most of the new regulations announced Tuesday by Veneman are what scientists and others recommended some time ago.

If these steps had been taken earlier, the public outcry and international reaction over the discovery of the mad cow would have been much less, he predicted.

"You feel very bad for the ranchers here, who are producing a good, quality product," Carlson said. "But for the sake of a few bucks in the rendering industry, it hurts everybody."

Carlson also said the government probably should test more cattle for mad cow disease, if for no other reason than to boost consumer confidence. European countries test 25 percent of slaughtered cattle; Japan tests 100 percent.

Last year, the United States tested less than one-tenth of a percent of the 35 million cattle slaughtered here.

The state of Montana tests only two dozen cattle a year for mad cow.

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