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Letter to USDA Regarding Mad Cow Disease

1424 16th St, NW, Suite 604, Washington, DC 20036 202-387-6121

January 15, 2004
The Honorable Ann M. Veneman
United States Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20520
Dear Secretary Veneman:
We are writing to request that you take immediate steps to ensure the safety of the nation’s meat supply in light of the recent discovery of a Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE)-positive Holstein in the state of Washington. While we commend you for all the hard work you have done so far on this issue, we believe that additional steps are immediately needed to guarantee that American beef is as safe as possible.
In conjunction with the regulatory steps we outline below, we call on you to convene and chair a series of public meetings in order to provide the public an opportunity to outline our concerns about the inadequacies of both the current and proposed policies on BSE. All of the proposals you have made were developed after private meetings with the regulated industries. Although the Department conducted regular media briefings, there has been no opportunity for representatives of consumers and public health groups to engage in a dialogue with you about what we believe is necessary to protect us and our families. Public forums will provide an opportunity for the USDA to hear from consumers what we believe is necessary not only to make the food supply safer, but to ensure that the public perceives it to be safer. For these reasons, we believe that it is important that you chair these public sessions personally. In order to avoid any further delay in the minimalist actions USDA has committed to taking, we urge you to convene these meetings immediately and to assure us they will not become an excuse to delay meaningful action.
We also request that you take the following actions to ensure the safety of the nation’s meat supply.
Mandatory Cattle Identification
We believe that in order to protect public health it is necessary to institute a mandatory, nationwide animal identification and tracking system that is fully enforceable and capable of tracing all animals from slaughter back to their farm of origin. Such a system would not only make it possible to trace animals infected with BSE but also to find the source of animals that come to a slaughterhouse with unusually large burdens of human pathogens. All cattle should be tagged at birth and records should be kept to trace those animals from birth to slaughter.
Surveillance and Testing
Improvements are needed both to determine the prevalence of BSE in the U.S. cattle population and to minimize the chance that BSE-infected cattle enter either animal feed or the human food supply. Therefore, we urge you to immediately increase the number of cattle being tested for mad cow disease, both at slaughter and deceased animals on the farm.
While we support your decision to exclude downer cattle from the human food supply, we are concerned that infected cattle that are asymptomatic could still enter U.S. slaughter plants. Thousands of infected cattle in Europe were not downers and showed no outward signs of the disease. Therefore, widespread testing is essential and should include healthy animals over 20 months of age and heavily target those animals of any age that show signs of central nervous system (CNS) diseases or are downers. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization has recently said that, “Testing of all slaughter cattle over 30 months is a measure to enhance consumer confidence.” We believe that a public process is urgently needed to discuss how testing should be applied to best protect the public health.
We recognize that increased testing will have associated costs. To stretch USDA’s and the meat industry’s testing dollars as far as possible, we urge you to immediately approve the “quick tests” currently approved for use in Europe and Japan for use in the United States. If USDA approves quick tests, it also will be much easier to prevent any BSE-positive animal from entering the food supply. With results available within 24 hours, no product recalls should be necessary.
We also believe that all downer cows that will be processed for animal feed should be required to be tested for BSE, so that BSE-positive animals will not enter the animal feed chain. Under FDA’s current feed rule, downer cow remains could be fed to pigs and chickens, and pig and chicken remains can be fed back to cattle. Downer cow blood could be fed to calves. The World Health Organization advises that no BSE-positive animal should go into the food chain, either human or animal, and we agree.
We also request that the comment period be re-opened on the proposed rule (APHIS Docket Number 03-080-1) to permit Canadian cattle to re-enter the United States, and that it be kept open until the full epidemiological investigation into the Washington state case is completed.
Public Information and Recall Authority
With regard to USDA’s handling of the current crisis, we are extremely concerned that consumers were not adequately informed about where the 10,000 pounds of meat that included the BSE-positive cow was sold. While USDA’s voluntary recall included only 10,000 pounds of meat, stores in Oregon actually recalled some 20,000 pounds of beef, while in California consumers were not informed which stores had sold the recalled meat, further confusing the situation. As a result, many consumers who purchased and ate this meat remain unaware that they did so, while even more consumers who did not consume it cannot confirm this reassuring fact.
This is because the current recall system is voluntary rather than mandatory, as we have been advocating for. USDA has interpreted distribution lists from firms recalling meat as “proprietary information” of the company. It will only share information with states that agree not to publicly identify the locations where potentially tainted meat has been distributed and sold. See 67 Fed.Reg. 20009 (April 24, 2002). We think this is wrong and that it endangers public health.
Worse, because of the slow pace and secrecy of the recall, there may well be consumers who purchased and ate meat from the BSE-positive animal in the days leading up to and following the Christmas holidays because they were not informed or aware that it should be discarded. These consumers were needlessly exposed to a risk, the size of which we cannot yet accurately estimate. Even if that risk was very small, it was avoidable, and consumers should have had the opportunity to decide whether or not they wanted to subject themselves to it.
We urge you to immediately disclose the names and locations of all stores and restaurants that received any meat shipments that may have included meat from the BSE-positive animal. We urge you not to make any further agreements to keep names and locations secret when negotiating any future voluntary meat recalls with industry, and to revoke your agreements with certain states to keep information of this type confidential. We also urge you to seek the support of the Bush Administration and Congress to give USDA recall authority over meat, so that the agency has at least as much authority over dangerous meat as the Consumer Product Safety Commission does over hazardous toys.
CNS Tissue in Meat Products
We urge you to strictly enforce the standard that no CNS tissue should be present in meat products, and we believe that no spinal column or neck bones should be permitted in Automated Meat Recovery (AMR). We support your decision to prohibit Mechanically Separated Meat in meat products. CNS tissue has the highest risk of carrying BSE. Therefore, we are concerned that a 2002 study by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service found that 35% of all meat extracted by AMR has traces of spinal cord and other central nervous system tissue that can carry the infectious agent. The meat came from 88% of the plants included in the survey. This demonstrates that the equipment cannot be used effectively to keep CNS tissue out of the human food supply.
While brains from animals under 30 months are allowed on the market, many consumers do not eat brains, and would avoid any food product in which they knew brain or central nervous system tissue was present, especially given the fact that cattle under 30 months of age have been found to be infected. Consumers do not expect any CNS tissue to be present in hamburger and other meat products. Therefore, USDA should implement stronger precautions to ensure that there is no risk that high-risk CNS tissue can enter the human food supply.
We appreciate your consideration of these requests and look forward to continuing to work with you and USDA to ensure that the food supply is safe.
American Public Health Association
Center for Science in the Public Interest
Consumer Federation of America
Consumers Union
Government Accountability Project
National Consumers League
Public Citizen
STOP – Safe Tables Our Priority