January 2, 2004


USDA Beef Rules Insufficient


Four consumer and environmental groups Wednesday applauded the U.S. Department of Agriculture's moves to strengthen the safety of U.S. beef supplies, but said they didn't go far enough and that some are too late.


In a press release, the Community Nutrition Institute, Global Resource Action Center for the Environment, the Government Accountability Project and Public Citizen said: "The USDA's regulatory changes designed to protect the U.S. against Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, commonly known as mad cow disease, show some slight progress, but the agency must go much further before it can say it has a truly protective system in place."




The fact that so-called "downer" cows, those that aren't able to walk, will no longer be allowed into the food chain is welcome but long overdue, the groups said. It remains to be seen whether the agency's implementation of this measure will be stringent enough to protect the public.


The groups had questions about how this rule will be enforced and what mechanisms will keep downer cows out of the rendering stream, where the groups feel they have the potential to contaminate other animal feed.




The fact that USDA will require products from animals tested for BSE to be held until a negative result is found is also welcome but overdue, the groups said.




The fact that advanced meat recovery will no longer be allowed for animals over the age of 30 months is progress, but USDA does not go far enough, the release said.


Current rules treat the presence of spinal-cord and other nervous-system materials as a labeling issue, they said. If these materials are present, the agency can cite the company for a labeling violation because products containing these materials should not be labeled as "meat."


That is unacceptable to these groups.


"Consumers should not be exposed to spinal and nervous system materials in their food no matter how it is labeled," their release said.


USDA's announcement that plants will be required to "verify" that their advanced meat recovery process is keeping "specified risk material" out of products was hardly reassuring to them because the agency has not yet established rules on how often plants must do such verification.


Given all of these concerns, advanced meat recovery should be banned, they said.




Similarly, the fact that "specified risk material" from animals over the age of 30 months would be deemed unfit for human consumption is progress, but USDA does not go far enough, the release said. All brains, spinal cords and other significant risk materials from an animal of any age should be banned.




"While Ron DeHaven's statement that USDA is considering moving toward rapid testing technologies is welcome, there are long-standing weaknesses in the agency's BSE testing regime that should be addressed," they said, "including inconsistencies in testing rates between states and a lack of transparency in the design of the testing program. There also appears to be too much discretion given to individual plants regarding which animals are tested, they said.


Changes in the BSE surveillance program must be made in a transparent manner that allows the public to see that the appropriate animals are being tested and at an adequate rate.




It is too soon for USDA to allow the importation of live animals from Canada, especially in light of recent evidence that the BSE-infected animal in Washington state may have originated in Canada, the groups said. The agency should keep the public comment period on this issue, which is due to close Jan. 5, open until more is known about this case.




USDA's regulatory program for BSE and the agency's response to the discovery of the infected cow in Washington must be investigated, they said. Congress should immediately hold hearings on this matter and request an investigation by a government agency, such as the General Accounting Office.