Cattle better protected from 'Mad Cow Disease' than people, CSPI warns

Health and consumer groups urge USDA to keep cattle spinal cord tissue out of processed meat

(Aug. 10, 2001 - Washington) The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) today petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to implement greater protections to prevent BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) from entering the food supply. In a formal petition, CSPI called on USDA to ban cattle spinal columns from use in “advanced meat recovery” systems and to stop allowing pieces of spinal cord in the meat those systems produce.

     BSE — mad cow disease — is a cattle disease that can also cause a fatal human brain infection called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease or vCJD. More than 100 people in Europe have died of vCJD. The disease causes progressive brain damage, which results in difficulty walking and speaking, memory loss, decreased mental function, and, invariably, death. BSE and vCJD are transmitted from cattle to other cattle and to humans through feed and food contaminated with small amounts of infected cattle brain, spinal cord, or other nervous system tissue.

     “Machines that strip meat from bones provide the best pathway for BSE to get into human food. Though BSE hasn’t been found in U.S. cattle, USDA and the meat industry must take all sensible precautions to block that pathway,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, CSPI’s food safety director. “At least four major fast-food chains don’t buy hamburger produced through mechanical means.”

     “While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1997 banned the use of processed cattle parts in making cattle feed, USDA has not taken adequate precautions to protect the humanfood supply,” said Smith DeWaal. “U.S. cattle aren’t allowed to eat cattle spinal cord — and neither should people.”

     The CSPI petition urged USDA to ban cattle spinal columns and neck bones from processing through advanced meat recovery (AMR) machines. Those machines strip soft tissue (including meat and spinal cord) from bones and produce 40 million pounds of meat paste annually. That meat paste typically is used in the production of hundreds of millions of pounds of hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza toppings, and taco fillings. Although USDA has asked companies to remove spinal cord from the spinal column and neck bones before they enter the machines, the agency rarely checks the industry’s compliance. Since 1998, USDA has tested approximately 100 samples of AMR meat for spinal cord. Of those, nine samples tested positive for this central nervous system tissue.

     CSPI also asked the Secretary to review all USDA regulations to determine what other food products might contain small amounts of brain tissue, central nervous system tissue, or other potentially infective materials from cattle and amend those regulations to ban potentially infectious materials from entering the food supply.

     “The possibility of mad cow disease makes it essential that potentially infective spinal cord does not enter the food supply,” said Michael Jacobson, CSPI’s executive director. “Waiting to protect the food supply until after mad cow disease is discovered would be like locking the barn door after the cows have left.”

      CSPI’s petition is supported by the American Public Health Association, Consumer Federation of America, Government Accountability Project, National Consumers League, and Safe Tables Our Priority.

      In a separate letter to Secretary Veneman, CSPI urges a total public review of USDA’s meat-purchasing specifications, including for meat going to the school lunch program, to ensure that those standards provide safe and wholesome food. The letter pointed out that many USDA regulations and buying specifications were drafted prior to BSE becoming a human health concern, and they allow small bits of spinal cord in processed meat products. In an August 8 letter to CSPI, Secretary Veneman has promised to take immediate action to update USDA purchasing specifications to prohibit spinal cord in beef products intended for Federal food and nutrition programs, which include the school lunch program.