Meatpackers say new rules intended to keep mad cow disease out of the nation’s beef supply could increase processing costs but will be worth it if they restore consumer confidence.
The new rules prohibit slaughterhouse practices that could allow meat to contain brain, spine or nerve tissue, which scientists say is most likely to carry the protein that causes mad cow disease.
The rules affect mostly larger meatpackers using advanced meat-recovery systems — machines that rub meat from the cow’s backbone. But industry groups said most processors already meet or exceed the new regulations.
The advanced recovery machines, in use at many plants since 1994, net perhaps another four pounds of meat from around the spinal column of a cow. But U.S. Department of Agriculture surveys of plants using the equipment in 2002 found that about 35 percent ended up with nerve tissue in some of the meat they produced.
'A profit we're throwing away'
Officials with many companies said the yield isn’t worth the risk.
“We felt whether or not there is a direct risk, it’s not worth that risk. Basically, it’s a profit we’re throwing away,” said Jim Herlihy, a spokesman for Colorado-based Swift & Co., which operates six U.S. meatpacking plants.
Only 35 of the nation’s 706 beef processing plants use the advanced meat-recovery equipment, according to the USDA. Keith Collins, the agency’s chief economist, estimated about 45 million pounds of the 26 billion pounds of beef produced by U.S. plants each year is obtained using the automated machinery.
Other rule changes, such as a ban on using “downer” cattle that are too sick to stand up and walk, will affect cattle producers more than meatpackers, industry officials said. Such cattle have accounted for about 0.3 percent of the cattle slaughtered each year, Collins said.
“My opinion has always been if a cow is too sick to stand up and walk, we probably shouldn’t be eating it,” said Chuck Mikkelson, owner of Mikkelson’s Beef in Oklahoma City.
The changes could cost some processors, but not enough to significantly affect profits, industry officials said.
“We do not perceive the new measures to be onerous but in line with a response that exercises an abundance of caution,” said Mark Klein, spokesman for Excel Corp., a Wichita Kan.-based beef and pork producer.
The rules actually could help smaller meatpackers if larger competitors lose some efficiency, said Steve Krut, spokesman for the American Association of Meat Processors. The trade group represents 1,700 small and mostly family-owned businesses.
“It kind of levels the playing field a little bit,” Krut said.