BSE rule violations cited
— USDA says processing safeguards working.
Last week, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request made by a private citizen, the USDA released statistics regarding the incidence of Specified Risk Material (SRM) contamination in meat.
Records show there have been 1,036 noncompliance reports filed by federal inspectors in the 17 months that have passed since the USDA ordered the removal of all SRMs from meat products for human consumption. Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) spokeswoman Amanda Eamich said the agency encourages inspectors to file reports when they find violations of the SRM ban.
SRMs are tissues that typically contain the proteins or prions associated with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in an affected animal. SRMs include the skull, brain, eyes, tonsils, trigeminal ganglia, spinal cord and dorsal root ganglia of all cattle more than 30 months of age, and the distal ileum (portion of small intestine) from cattle of all ages.
Eamich said when an inspector witnesses a violation, FSIS guidelines require immediate action to remedy the situation. “Depending on the plant, the lot or the entire days’ product would be reinspected,” she said.
“The program is working; no banned materials have made it into the human food chain,” said Eamich.
Response from consumer groups has been less optimistic.
“Frankly, we are not surprised,” said Michael Hansen, senior scientist for the Consumers Union, producer of Consumer Reports magazines. “The USDA doesn’t take the testing program seriously,” he said.
Speaking on behalf of the Consumers Union, he said the group hopes this information will spur the agency to take this disease more seriously.
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“This shows the USDA is more concerned with the meat industry, than public safety,” Hansen said.
The American Meat Institute had a decidedly different take on the information.
In a press release, AMI Foundation (AMIF) president James H. Hodges said, “When considering the public health risk posed by BSE, it is essential to maintain perspective about this animal disease. BSE’s notable impact on humans is the ability to generate emotion and overreaction to an extremely low risk.”
Hodges equated the likelihood of BSE posing a risk to the public with the odds of being hit by lightning and winning the lottery in the same day.
The USDA records show that in the period since the SRM ban was put in place, there have only been 1,036 incidents of noncompliance. Over that same time period, a total 46 million cattle were slaughtered under federal inspection, resulting in a noncompliance rate of less than one-tenth of one percent.
Hodges said, “With inspection records indicating a better than 99.9 percent compliance rate with rules designed to protect humans from BSE, this is a success story that should instill confidence in American beef consumers.”
AMIF and other livestock industry groups are concerned that certain opponents of the USDA and livestock producers will use the information to paint a negative picture of USDA protocols. In his statement, Hodges urged the public to consider the positive side of the equation, “Some groups will no doubt attempt to use this information as evidence of possible operational problems and even a food safety concern, when nothing is further from the truth,” he said.
Last week, Japanese officials announced they would seek information about the SRM violations. Reports from Japan indicate the recent revelations could harm negotiations as the U.S. struggles to resume beef exports to East Asia. — John Robinson, WLJ Associate Editor
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