USDA overhauls meat inspection rules

The disconnect between the two Agriculture Department agencies responsible for safety of the food supply is how meat from a Holstein cow in Washington State potentially ended up on dinner tables in six states before federal regulators discovered the cow had been infected with the disease commonly known as "mad cow disease."

Under new rules established by the Agriculture Department that went into effect Monday, meat inspectors can no longer mark carcasses as having passed inspection while they are undergoing testing for Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE); carcasses can now be marked as inspected only after negative test results are received. Before Monday, carcasses selected for testing were marked by inspectors as "inspected," and would likely have entered the food chain by the time test results were received.

Until earlier this week, when federal veterinarians from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service selected a carcass to test for BSE-a disease that can be detected only after an animal is slaughtered-federal meat inspectors with the Food Safety and Inspection Service would mark that carcass as having been inspected, before the test results were known. While the FSIS recommended that those carcasses be held until test results confirmed that there was no sign of disease, slaughterhouses were under no obligation to withhold the meat from the food supply until this week.

BSE is a progressive degenerative disease that affects the central nervous system in cattle over 30 months old, and has been linked to the fatal Cruetzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. Federal officials have emphasized that it is extremely unlikely any meat from the cow in Washington State was infected with BSE because the disease is confined to the brain and spinal column, which are banned from the food supply. Nonetheless, on Dec. 23, 2003 in what Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman called "an abundance of caution," 10,410 pounds of raw beef that might have been exposed to tissues from that cow during meat processing were recalled.

"This will prevent a similar situation from occurring in the future," says FSIS spokesman Steven Cohen.

FSIS has taken additional steps to strengthen food safety and mitigate the fallout from the nation's first reported case of BSE, a disease that has devastated the British beef industry and affected several European countries over the last decade. The agency has expanded the list of prohibited materials from cattle carcasses that can be used in meat products, including brain, skull, eyes, spinal cord, various nerve tissues, tonsils and small intestines.

Also, FSIS inspectors no longer will allow "downer animals," those that cannot walk, to enter the food supply-a provision food safety advocates have long pushed for, but one that has been resisted by the beef industry.

FSIS has 7,500 meat and poultry inspectors who monitor nearly 6,500 meat processing facilities in the country, Cohen says, and the agency's fiscal 2004 budget will allow for the hiring of an additional 80 inspectors. Inspectors must be present at slaughterhouses during all hours of operation.

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