By the time laboratory tests confirmed mad-cow disease in a Washington Holstein last December, the carcass had already been mixed with meat from hundreds of other cows, ground...
By the time laboratory tests confirmed mad-cow disease in a Washington Holstein last December, the carcass had already been mixed with meat from hundreds of other cows, ground into hamburger and distributed to nearly 600 grocery stores and restaurants in Washington and five other states.
That wouldn’t happen today.
Nor would any animal too sick or injured to walk wind up in the human food supply.
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In the year since a dairy cow from Mabton, Yakima County, focused the nation’s attention on downers and prions and the practice of feeding blood to calves, the federal government has taken several steps that make American beef safer.
But several other promised safeguards haven’t come to pass.
And consumer advocates say much more could be done to ensure that Americans won’t contract the fatal brain disease from their burgers.
“Things have improved,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “But in some areas they haven’t gone far enough.”
Among the changes:
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) banned downer animals those too sick or injured to walk from the human food supply. But the ban has not been made permanent.
The carcasses from animals tested for mad-cow disease are now held until test results come back.
The USDA banned from the human food chain the brains, spinal cords and other “high-risk” tissues from cattle over 30 months of age. Agency experts say this is the single most important step in reducing the mad-cow risk to people.
The mad-cow testing program was greatly expanded. Since June 1, more than 140,000 animals have been tested with none being found positive. Last year, 20,000 animals were tested. Several beef operations want to test all the cattle they slaughter, but the USDA has refused to allow it.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned brains and other potentially infectious tissues from dietary supplements and cosmetics. But the ban applies only to tissue from cattle 30 months of age or older. Brain tissue from younger cattle can still be used.
The use of machinery that squeezes bones and meat into a kind of paste was banned, because the paste can contain nervous tissue, where the mad-cow infectious agent concentrates. It’s still legal, though, to use automated machinery to strip meat from the spines of younger cattle.
Several other measures proposed by the FDA have not been implemented, including:
A ban on feeding cattle blood to cattle. The practice is widely used to wean calves that have been separated from their mothers.
A ban on feeding chicken waste and table scraps to cattle. Experts think mad-cow disease spreads when infected cows are recycled into feed for other animals.
Since 1997 the U.S. has prohibited use of cattle parts in cattle feed, but cattle parts can be fed to chickens and pigs, and those animals in turn can be processed into feed for cattle. Table scraps from restaurants and food processors can include beef.
A requirement that feed manufacturers use separate facilities to process cow parts, to ensure they won’t contaminate feed destined for cattle.
Smith DeWaal and other consumer advocates want the FDA to ban the use of cattle parts in all animal feed, to eliminate any possibility of contamination.
The agency said it was considering the possibility but has postponed action.