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USDA finds 1,000 violations of mad cow rules

The U.S. Agriculture Department has found more than 1,000 instances since 2004 where U.S. meat plants cut corners or violated regulations aimed at preventing the spread of mad cow disease.
/ Source: Reuters

Federal food safety inspectors found more than 1,000 instances since 2004 where U.S. meat plants cut corners or violated regulations aimed at preventing the spread of mad cow disease, the U.S. Agriculture Department said Monday.

The USDA said it released documents to the American Meat Institute and the consumer group Public Citizen showing that federal inspectors filed 1,036 noncompliance reports from January 2004 to May 2005 involving the removal of the brain, skull and spinal cord of cattle aged 30 months and older.

The materials are considered to carry the highest risk in spreading the brain-wasting disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). The USDA banned them from the human food supply a few days after the December 2003 discovery of the first U.S. case of mad cow disease in a Washington state dairy cow.

The nation’s second confirmed case of BSE was discovered earlier this summer in a Texas beef cow.

Public Citizen said the documents showed instances where U.S. meat plants did not distinguish between older and younger animals, banned materials were not removed and tools not properly cleaned.

“I think there still has to be a concern about meat from an infected animal making it into the food supply,” said Tony Corbo, legislative representative for Public Citizen. “It is not a fail-safe system.”

The meat industry disagreed.

“Some groups will no doubt attempt to use this information as evidence of possible operational problems and even a food safety concern, when nothing is further from the truth,” said Jim Hodges, president of the AMI Foundation.

AMI said the noncompliance reports represent just one-tenth of 1 percent of the 46 million cattle slaughtered nationwide during the 17-month period.

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service said its federal meat inspectors strictly enforced the regulations to keep BSE out of the human food supply.

“These data demonstrate inspection program personnel took immediate action when they determined that regulators were not being strictly followed. The analysis demonstrates public health was protected,” the agency said in a statement posted on its Web site.

The documents were released to the industry and consumer groups in response to Freedom of Information Act requests, and were not made public by the USDA.

Public Citizen said it was still reviewing all the documents, and would need several days to summarize the noncompliance  reports.

The U.S. Food and Drug and Administration has separately been considering tougher safeguards against mad cow disease for the past 18 months. The FDA in 1997 banned the use of cattle remains as a protein supplement for cattle, but consumer groups have urged the FDA to extend the ban to feed for poultry, pigs and pet food.