WASHINGTON -- U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced last week that so-called "downer cattle" -- animals unable to walk on their own at the slaughter plant -- will be barred from being used as food for humans.
The order is part of a larger government plan to ensure that meat from those animals cannot be sold until tests show they are free of mad cow disease.
Veneman also announced a ban on the use of small intestines from cattle in human food. She said a new regulation would be written to prevent spinal tissue from inclusion in meat products as a result of advanced meat recovery systems.
Veneman added these "very aggressive actions" should not impose any hardship on the cattle and meatpacking industries, nor consumers.
"I don't expect an increase in the price to consumers," she said. The USDA estimates approximately 130,000 downer cattle are shipped to slaughterhouses every year.
Industry associations are expressing overall support for additional safeguards.
"We would completely support the USDA in any of their efforts," said Mark Thomas, vice president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, Denver. "But they need to be based on science and a scientifically valid, statistical analysis."
Both the NCBA and the American Meat Institute, Arlington, Va., stated that they want to follow the government's lead in the probe and act as a single entity where possible.
"We want to be responsive with the government and not do or say anything that would, in any way, call into question what the government is doing -- or has done," said Thomas.
James Hodges, president of the AMI Foundation, said the group supports "aggressive surveillance, but we think it should focus on where the resources would do the most good."
In the Washington case, the downer cow was slaughtered and the meat sent to further-processing facilities.
In keeping with current USDA regulations, however, federal inspectors withheld the spinal column and brain for BSE testing. Because the suspect animal was known to have recently calved, and exhibited none of the classic symptoms, the inspectors were not alarmed by the animal's inability to walk and did not place a priority request on the samples.
Another measure being debated would test every cow slotted for human consumption, a system that is currently practiced in several countries, including Japan. The USDA has made increased testing a priority: In 2004, the agency expects to examine 40,000 head for BSE, up from only 5,000 in 2001.
Still, critics say that number is not enough when there are an estimated 96 million head of cattle in the United States.
"This incident only serves to underscore the urgent need for the U.S. to immediately undertake a massive mad-cow-disease-testing program on beef," said Jean Halloran, director of Consumers Union, Yonkers, N.Y. "The U.S. needs to be far more proactive in protecting the American food supply."
Hodges of AMI said his group opposes universal testing because the incubation period of BSE is so long -- an average of eight years -- that the disease wouldn't show up in younger cattle. Officials likened it to testing children for Alzheimer's disease.
"The tests will not show that [cattle] are infected at very young ages," he said. "You need to target the population most likely to have the disease, and that includes older animals and those that may exhibit some neurological signs, or downed animals."
Prevention has been the linchpin of the government's efforts. A landmark study released in November 2001 by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis found the chance of BSE occurring in the United States to be "extremely low." The three-year survey found substantial barriers protecting the beef supply, and adequate measures in place to stem the spread of the disease once detected.
At the time, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman acknowledged the study's praise for the multiple firewalls put into place after BSE was first detected in Europe in the mid-1980s. But she also announced that the USDA would continue to pursue additional regulatory actions that may be taken to reduce the potential risk of exposure and ensure potential infectious materials remain out of the U.S. food supply.
Some consumer groups, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest, have been pushing for a total ban on the use of AMR products in human food items like hot dogs, sausages, pizza toppings and taco fillings.
"CSPI petitioned the USDA in 2002 to ban the use of these cattle parts in meat production, but the USDA has failed to act," stated Caroline Smith DeWaal, the organization's food safety director.