Just under 100 U.S. companies have recently violated regulations meant to prevent the spread of mad cow disease, according to new records from the Food and Drug Administration.
At the same time, officials signaled progress in talks with Tokyo about lifting its ban on American beef and a federal judge has extended a ban on Canadian beef intended to prevent any mad cow-tainted meat from crossing the border. But Mexican officials refused to fully lift their ban on U.S. meat.
The FDA's database on feed inspections shows 12 recent cases -- including a Kansas feed distributor -- which the FDA said warranted its most serious action. Another 80 firms had minor violations.
All of the dozen firms listed as FDA's most serious cases had problems noted during the past five months. The violations included the potential for mixing prohibited material, as well as serious labeling or record-keeping problems, said Steve Solomon, deputy director of the FDA's office of regional operations in Washington.
Federal officials insist one of the nation's best defenses against bovine spongiform encephalopathy, as mad cow disease is formally known, is the FDA's 1997 ban on feeding cattle protein or bone meal made from cows or other ruminants.
"We still think it needs a lot of vigilance and we want to make sure nobody becomes complacent to the regulation. We think it is a credible firewall," Solomon said.
The FDA's initial rule was adopted from similar regulations in Europe. Those were developed after Europe's mad cow crisis, which hit hardest in Britain, where over 180,000 cattle were infected.
Scientists determined the most likely means for cows to become infected was feed made from the tissue of infected cattle. Until the late 1990s, cattle feed made from the protein of cows and other ruminant animals was common in many countries, including the United States.
People who eat BSE-tainted beef can get a similar fatal affliction, known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which like mad cow disease eats holes in the brain.
The FDA database, updated last week, includes 14,037 companies still in business. Since the 1997 ban, the FDA has issued more than 50 recalls on livestock feeds, including about a dozen recalls in the past year, Solomon said.
While the agency conducts checks of feed mills' documents, it rarely performs on-site checks for violations. The General Accounting Office in 2002 criticized the FDA's efforts and the accuracy of its database. The agency has said it is improving its enforcement.
Feed mills in several states
Among those firms cited by the FDA were livestock feeders in Oklahoma, Indiana and Texas; a major feed manufacturer in Ohio; and smaller non-licensed feed mills and distributors in Kansas, Georgia, West Virginia, Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio and Texas.
Those listed for more serious violations were Griffey Farms in Milton, Ind.; Chapman Ranch in Lampasas, Texas; and Fred Morrison Cox, Jr. in Talala, Okla.
Indianapolis attorney Bradley Williams said Griffey Farms knows of no evidence that inspectors found a violation. "As far as we know there were some issues on handling practices in respect to cattle feed which have been addressed and have been corrected," Williams said.
Cox, a cow-calf producer, said an FDA inspector came to his ranch after a bull he sold showed high levels of a worming medication when it was slaughtered. He was told to keep better records about medication.
The Chapman Ranch could not be reached for comment.
Many facilities also received lesser citations. Tom Hurst, manager of Bardstown Mill in Bardstown, Ky., said the apparent violation at his mill involved some chicken feed the company was custom mixing with dog food for an individual. The agency required Bardstown to attach a statement to the customer's invoice advising them not to feed it to cattle or other ruminants, Hurst said.
Also listed was feed distributor Premium Nutritional Products in Mission, Kan. The company manufacturers exotic animal foods, said company spokeswoman Gail Shepard. Inspectors were concerned about the labeling of a product it sells mostly to zoos as feed for exotic felines. Since the FDA's January inspection, the company changed its label to include warnings not to feed it to cattle or other ruminant animals, she said.
Progress in Japan talks
At the same time, U.S. officials were trying to reverse bans on American beef. A USDA official said Tuesday that Japan might lift its ban on U.S. beef by the fall, after progress in recent talks.
Tokyo has banned all American beef since the first U.S. mad cow case was found last December, and wants all beef destined for Japan be tested for the disease.
After returning from weekend talks in Tokyo, J.B. Penn, undersecretary for foreign agricultural services, said the two nations would set up a technical working group to examine their different approaches to handling BSE.
Japan tests every cow destined for human consumption; the United States tests a tiny fraction of its herd. No other country has testing as universal as Japan's, but many test up to half the cattle they slaughter. Though U.S. officials now plan to test about 200,000 cows in the next 18 months, they insist broader tests aren't scientifically justified on more of the 37 million cows slaughtered each year.
Prior to the December ban, Japan was America’s most lucrative beef buyer -- a fact that has hit home for some packers of premium beef, a few of whom want to test all their beef. Yet the USDA recently rejected a proposal by one small packer, Creekstone Farms Premium Beef, to do universal testing at its Kansas plant.
Creekstone said the Japanese agreed to buy tested beef. But the agency maintains the tests should not be used as a food safety measure. Penn said negotiators had "some discussion" on private tests, but the talks “didn’t go anywhere.”
While the technical talks could prove helpful, Japanese embassy agricultural attaché Tadashi Sato told The Associated Press, "It is quite premature to prejudge what this working group will bring.”
Mexican officials also said Monday they would not lift a remaining partial ban on U.S. beef, as they are not convinced that U.S. meat packers have taken sufficient measures to combat mad cow.
Javier Trujillo, the agriculture ministry’s animal and plant health chief, said Mexican officials who visited U.S. plants in March were unhappy at methods used for deboning beef.
Like Japan and dozens of other countries, Mexico barred U.S. beef last December. But it partially lifted its ban last month, allowing about 40 percent of its $1 billion in U.S. beef imports to resume.
Canadian beef ban holds
Meantime, a group of U.S. beef producers won a round in court as a judge barred the Bush administration from reopening U.S. borders to shipments of some Canadian beef.
R-Calf USA, an activist farm group, was granted a temporary restraining order against the USDA in federal court late Monday. The USDA quietly announced last week it would further reverse last summer's ban on many types of Canadian beef, including bone-in cuts and hamburger from young Canadian cattle.
The United States shut its borders after Canada reported its first home-grown case of mad cow disease in May of last year. It later allowed boneless beef from Canadian cattle 30 months or younger.
R-Calf fears a lifting of the ban would increase the risks to U.S. consumers. “Our only objective here is to maintain the maximum level of protection from mad cow disease,” Bill Bullard, the group’s president, told Reuters.
A federal judge in Montana issued the restraining order, saying that the USDA did not “follow appropriate rulemaking procedures.” A hearing is set for May 11.
MSNBC's Jon Bonné, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.