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From: TSS ()
Date: August 13, 2005 at 9:13 am PST

The New York Times -- Saturday August 12 2005
Safer Beef

Fears of another case of mad cow disease in the United States have faded for
the time being because tests on the most recent suspect animal came back
negative. But that is no reason to feel confident about the American beef
supply. American cows still eat food that can potentially infect them with
mad cow disease. American meatpackers use dangerous methods that other
countries ban. And the United States Department of Agriculture does not
require enough testing to ensure that American beef is completely safe.

U.S.D.A. officials and spokesmen for the meatpacking industry argue that the
public is protected by current safety procedures. The chance of human
infection is indeed very low - but the disease that mad cow induces in human
is always fatal, so extreme caution is warranted. The Agriculture Department
is hamstrung by its dual and conflicting mission: to promote the nation's
meat industry and to protect the consumer. It's clear which is winning.

In April, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns suggested that the mad cow
rules might even be relaxed to allow companies to sell some cows too sick to
walk for use in human food. Instead of reacting to the confirmation of a
case of mad cow in June by fixing the remaining loopholes in the system, Mr.
Johanns announced that he had eaten beef for lunch.

Mad cow disease lurks in the animal's nervous system, and cows contract it
by eating infected tissue. While cows are naturally herbivores, the beef
industry turned them into cannibals by making meal ground from beef and beef
bones a staple of the industrial cow's diet. In the wake of the British mad
cow epidemic, the Food and Drug Administration banned beef and bone meal as
cow feed.

But it is tempting for farmers and feedlots to violate the feed ban because
the meal is a cheap protein source and can be kept on hand to feed chickens
and pigs. Cows are fed at a million different sites in America, and the
Government Accountability Office criticizes the F.D.A.'s inspection regime
as insufficient and ridden with loopholes.

In addition, cattle blood, which is suspected of being able to carry
infection, can legally be given to calves as part of a milk substitute.
Industrial cows are also still fed material scooped from the bottom of
chicken cages. The chicken manure is the safe part - spilled chicken feed,
which can include the same beef and bone meal that has been banned as cow
feed, is more dangerous.

After the first case of mad cow disease was found in America in 2003, the
U.S.D.A. tightened the rules to remove some potentially infective nervous
system tissue from slaughterhouse processing lines so it wouldn't slip into
the food supply or contaminate other meat. But some nervous system tissue is
still permitted, as long as it comes from cows under 30 months old.

This is not a perfect cutoff point - there have been cases of younger cows
with mad cow disease in Britain and Japan. Nor can we be certain of a cow's
age because the United States has no mandatory animal identification system,
like the tattooing or ear tags used in other nations. Each slaughterhouse
has workers who check cows for molars that erupt around 30 months. They also
watch processing lines for brain and spinal cord tissue.

The U.S.D.A. says its inspectors can ensure that companies protect the beef
supply. But whistle-blowing meat inspectors contend that they lack the power
to do their job, and that the agency lets companies pile up violations
without any penalties.

Boneless steaks and roasts are probably safe to eat. The riskiest meats are
ground beef, hot dogs, taco fillings and pizza toppings - the things
children love. These products can come out of "advanced meat recovery"
machines: rubber fingers that strip a carcass clean. These machines are
banned in Europe and Japan, and some American meatpackers have stopped using

Still, there's no law against them, even though a U.S.D.A. study in 2002
found that only 12 percent of the plants it examined consistently produced
meat from these machines that was clean of nervous system tissue.
Regulations have been tightened, but they still allow the use of these
machines to include nervous system tissue as long as it comes from young cows.

Washington relies on its rules to keep mad cow disease out of the meat
supply. But it doesn't test enough cows to know whether they work. America
tests about 1 percent of the slaughtered cows, and recent experiences don't
inspire confidence in the testing regime. The Agriculture Department
initially said its tests on one of the two American cows found to be
infected had shown the cow was healthy. The positive result came out only
after the U.S.D.A.'s inspector general required British tests that the
U.S.D.A. had said were unnecessary.

European countries test all animals over a certain age, and until recently,
Japan tested every cow. More than 60 countries have completely or partly
banned American beef, including Japan, the largest importer. Wider testing
would probably open these markets. Creekstone Farms, a Kansas
slaughterhouse, announced last year that it wanted to test all its cows. The
U.S.D.A., which controls the mad-cow testing kits, said no; apparently major
slaughterhouses feared that universal testing by Creekstone would create
pressure on them to do the same.

Instead of winning other nations' trust by improving safety, Washington
relies on clout. President Bush has personally lobbied Japan to accept
American beef. Beef producers need not improve their safety practices when
the Agriculture Department acts as their marketing arm. It is time for
Americans to have the protection of a food safety agency separate from


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