Moving to stem growing concern about mad cow disease, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced new restrictions Tuesday on U.S. beef, including a ban on the use of cattle similar to the Holstein cow discovered to have the fatal disease.
New regulations will prohibit the use of so-called "downer" cows for food. Downer animals, including the one U.S. cow that tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE, can no longer move on their own. They are already scrutinized by inspectors and checked by veterinarians because they are considered at higher risk for health problems. The stricken cow would have been barred from slaughter for human food under the rules announced Tuesday.
The Department of Agriculture will also ban from the food supply any cattle brains, spinal cords and lower intestines, all of which can harbor the deformed proteins known as prions that cause BSE. And skulls from older cows will no longer be able to undergo a process known as advanced meat recovery, which uses machinery to scrape meat from bones, Veneman said. Concerns have been raised about the recovery method because of the possibility that nervous system tissue, which may contain prions, could get into the meat.
Additionally, the USDA will expedite plans currently in development for a national system to identify and track all cattle.
The new rules will require meat from any cow that is being tested for BSE to be withheld from the food supply until testing is completed, a process that will usually take about two days, according to USDA officials. Currently, meat from the carcass could be sent on for processing even while the animals' brains and spinal cords are being tested.
The use of air-injection systems, which drive a bolt through a cow's skull to kill it quickly, will be banned. And many body parts of older cattle -- brains, spinal cords, eyes and more -- will be classified as specified risk materials, which will prohibit them from human consumption.
Veneman said the new rules will go into effect as soon as they can be published.
"USDA remains committed to taking every appropriate step along with our partners to protect our food supply and the well-being of American agriculture," she said.
Meat from the diseased cow, slaughtered Dec. 9 in Washington state, was sold and may have been distributed to as many as eight states, plus the territory of Guam. Inspectors allowed meat from the cow to be sold for human consumption because a USDA inspector saw only signs of a physical injury to the cow.
Over 10,000 pounds of meat from that cow and 19 others slaughtered on the same day have been recalled, though stores believed some may have been sold to customers. USDA officials have maintained that no threat to the food supply existed from the meat and that the recall was only a precaution.
Policies criticizedUSDA officials and the beef industry have repeatedly hammered home a message that it was safe to eat beef and that the first discovery of mad-cow disease in the United States posed no risk to the nation's food supply.
Consumers Union and food safety groups said the government was being too optimistic about the situation. Many food watchdogs, and even meat industry lobbyists, supported programs to quarantine meat during testing. But prior to Tuesday's announcement, no restrictions existed on the use of downer meat, though USDA inspectors often gave these cows extra attention.
Groups representing the nations' retailers and restaurant owners asked for the test-and-hold procedures, as they are known, in a request to Veneman last July -- along with a request to test downer cows for BSE. They praised the USDA's decision.
Animal rights groups, which have long protested the use of downer cattle and other procedures, also welcomed Tuesday's announcement.
“We are delighted with Secretary Veneman’s emphatic declaration that downed cattle are unfit for human consumption,” Wayne Pacelle, senior vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, said in a statement.
Some Democrats, including presidential contender Howard Dean, have taken the Bush administration to task for lax testing standards. While the United States far exceeds international requirements for BSE testing, it lags behind some European countries, which saw their own cattle industry devastated by mad cow disease in the 1980s and 1990s, and Japan, which maintains rigorous inspection requirements for its own cattle.
Like most of Europe, the United States and Canada have banned brain and spinal cord tissue from use in cattle feed. Those tissues are the primary means by which the mad cow disease is transmitted. The ban, which took effect in August 1997, prohibits feeding cattle to other cattle, sheep and goats. That type of feed can still be used on other types of livestock, including chicken and pigs.
The prion that causes mad cow disease is not thought to reside in muscle tissue, the source of roasts, steaks and other beef cuts. Dr. Ron DeHaven, USDA’s chief veterinary officer, said studies have shown the prion is found only in the central nervous system tissue, the brain and spinal cord. It has also been found in cows' retinas and tonsils, which are not approved for human food.
And concerns have lingered that neural tissue can find its way into certain meat products. A 2002 USDA study of meat recovery, for example, found over one-third of AMR meat tested had tissue such as bits of brain or spinal cord, and announced closer inspections of the recovery methods in March.
Response to global pressure?The economic impact of the new rules was not immediately clear. The loss of downer cows from the food chain could cost farmers $100 million or more; the National Milk Producers Federation estimated it could cost dairy farmers up to $20 million. However, the cost of international bans on U.S. beef could cost the industry $5 billion or more. And Tuesday's moves could help reduce the possibility of future beef recalls.
"It is the recall that is so damaging to consumer confidence and so damaging to the industry because you always end up recalling more than just the infected animal," said Tim Hammonds, president and CEO of the Food Marketing Institute, which represents U.S. retailers.
Though Veneman said the changes have been planned for a while, a Congressional attempt to ban downer meat was killed in the House last summer, at which time the USDA was criticized for allowing the process to continue.
And the announcement comes as U.S. agriculture officials were in Tokyo to persuade Japan to lift its ban on American beef, which was put in place immediately after reports of the positive test for mad cow disease. Japanese officials have said the United States is being too hasty to declare the meat safe. After stopping in Japan, the U.S. delegation went on to South Korea, which also has banned U.S. beef, along with some two dozen other nations.
"These actions are not being taken in response just to our trading partners," Veneman said. "We should take these actions that are appropriate and consistent with actions that many other countries have taken."
Canadian officials, meantime, said their U.S. counterparts were too quick to say that the sick Holstein came from Canada, since genetic testing is not complete and the tainted feed that is the most likely source of infection could have come from either country. U.S. officials Tuesday were more tentative about the source of the sick cow, but maintained it likely did come from a Canadian source. Previously conflicting records between the two countries appeared to have been resolved.
Though they initially said the cow was just over 4 years old, they have since revised that figure and said it was 6 1/2 years old. Records confirm the animal was born in Alberta, Canada in April 1997, DeHaven said. Alberta also was the home of the only infected Canadian cow to be discovered with the deadly illness.
Officials are seeking 81 other Canadian-born cows from the same herd as the sick Holstein, which appears to have entered the United States in late 2001.
Both cows were born before the 1997 feed ban. The Food and Drug Administration, which monitors animal feed in the United States, reports near-total compliance with the ban. But earlier reports found only 75 percent of feed makers were complying with the rules, and a GAO report last year noted several shortfalls in the feed inspection process.
Some in the food industry want the feed ban extended to all animals, and are waiting to see if the FDA will take action to prohibit high-risk cattle parts from all types of feed and pet food.
"We hope they're considering that," said Hammonds. "They really do need to close that firewall as well."