CSPI on Mad Cow Disease Found in U.S.

Statement of Food Safety Director Caroline Smith DeWaal


The discovery of a BSE-infected cow in Washington state means that the USDA urgently needs to improve its protection of the human food supply. USDA needs to take several immediate steps to reduce the risk to consumers and the beef industry.

The largest gap in protection results from the government's failure to ban spinal columns and neck bones from the human food supply. The central nervous system tissue and nerves that exit the spinal cord (called the dorsal root ganglia) can carry the infectious agents for mad cow disease. USDA has found that certain ground beef products contain central nervous system tissue. That meat comes from machines called Advanced Meat Recovery (AMR) Systems that squeeze meat and soft tissue off the neck bone and spinal column. CSPI petitioned the USDA in 2002 to ban the use of these cattle parts in meat production, but the USDA has failed to act.

Another critical gap is the lack of a mandatory animal identification system for cattle that tracks animals from birth to slaughter. These systems are widely used in other countries, including Canada, where it was instrumental in speeding the Canadian response to the discovery of mad cow disease.

While the risk from this single cow is minimal, the possibility that other cattle have been exposed and may be ill is not. Consumers can safely eat boneless cuts of beef. Bone-in beef is slightly higher in risk. The products that trigger greater concern include beef brain, and meat that contains the AMR ground beef products. These include ground beef (unless ground from whole muscle cuts), hot dogs, sausages, pizza toppings and taco fillings.

The discovery of one infected cow should trigger an aggressive response from USDA. To close existing gaps in consumer protection, steps are needed to track cattle from birth and better protect the food supply. USDA's willingness to delay action until an infected cow was discovered is a product of their conflicting mission: They must protect consumers while at the same time promoting U.S. beef internationally. Consumer protection has certainly fallen short.

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Contact Info: 

Contact Jeff Cronin (jcronin[at]cspinet.org) or Ariana Stone (astone[at]cspinet.org).