Statement of CFA's Carol Tucker Foreman on Negative BSE Test Result

November 22, 2004
Chris Waldrop, 202-797-8551

The announcement that the presumptive mad cow positive test is negative is good news and a relief for everyone. We all hope that the discovery of an infected cow in Washington state last December will be a unique event. However, chances are that other cases will be discovered. The obvious level of public concern about BSE is an additional reason to do everything necessary to protect the public from the human form of mad cow disease.

 USDA and FDA assure us that the meat supply is safe. Their assurances are based on an assumption that all potentially hazardous tissue is removed from a carcass before it is processed for food. However, the rules don't cover all potentially hazardous tissues, don't protect against cross contamination and aren't adequately enforced. USDA has not banned the use of advanced meat recovery (AMR) products, which previous tests found to be contaminated with potentially hazardous tissue. There is no test that can demonstrate meat is free from hazardous tissue. Some in the meat industry want to permit certain sick or injured animals to be slaughtered for food. FDA has not banned feeding bovine blood to calves nor excluded poultry litter from cow feed. Most of these weaknesses can and should be remedied immediately.

  • The USDA interim rule on "specified risk materials" permits some potentially hazardous tissue to be used in human food. It does not ban either the sheath that covers the spinal cord (dura) nor all of the small intestine. The international advisory committee appointed by Sec. Veneman urged that all of the small intestine be banned but USDA rejected that recommendation.
  • The USDA interim rule is not adequate to prevent potentially hazardous tissues from coming into contact with human food. USDA allows slaughter plants to use knives, blades and other equipment first to remove hazardous tissue and then to process meat that will go into the food supply without first sterilizing the equipment. USDA warns consumers not to use knives on raw meat and then on cooked meat without washing them first but fails to impose these requirements in slaughter plants.
  • The USDA interim rule still permits use of "advanced meat recovery" (AMR) product in human food even though USDA's own tests showed about one-third of that product was contaminated with potentially hazardous tissues.
  • While the USDA interim rule prohibits all non-ambulatory cattle from entering the food supply, many in the meat industry have argued for allowing some downed animals to be slaughtered for human food
  • FDA has reneged on its pledge to prohibit feeding cattle blood to calves and its ban on the use of poultry litter in cow feed. Both of these practices raise the possibility of feeding infectious prions to cattle. FDA now says it will rely on the removal of specified risk materials, assuming the removal will be perfect, despite the obvious inadequacies of the USDA rule.
  • Enforcement of both the SRM removal and FDA's feed rules are little more than promises and paper checks. USDA does not require that removal be part of a plant's HACCP plan. The hundred-year-old meat inspection act probably does not permit USDA to shut down plants that fail to comply with the rule. While meat inspectors are told to check to ensure that SRM removal is perfect, there is no technology or test to assure the hazardous tissues are removed and USDA has not required plants to slow their lines in order to carry out these additional actions.

The Bush Administration and the meat industry assert there is no risk to human health from mad cow disease, arguing that current rules are adequate to protect the public. However, a number of food companies have imposed additional requirements such as the ones above to ensure their customers are safe. In the case of a devastating illness such as mad cow disease, the public deserves something more than minimal protective action.

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The Consumer Federation of America is a non-profit association of 300 consumer groups, representing more than 50 million Americans, that seeks to advance the consumer interest through research, education and advocacy. Carol Tucker Foreman is the Director of CFA's Food Policy Institute and former assistant Secretary of Agriculture.