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USDA Beefs Up Meat Safety Precautions

New Restrictions to Add Extra Layer of Protection Against Mad Cow Disease

WebMD Health News

Dec. 30, 2003 -- In response to the first case of mad cow disease found on American soil, the USDA today announced "aggressive" new measures designed to further protect the food supply from the disease.

"While we are confident that the United States has safeguards and firewalls needed to protect public health, these additional actions will further strengthen our protection systems," says Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman.

The new restrictions include banning cows unable to walk on their own from the U.S. food supply as well as brains or other high-risk components from cows older than 30 months.

Mad cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is a disease that affects the brain and nervous system of cows and is spread primarily through eating infected tissue.

Under the new restrictions, the infected dairy cow found in the U.S. would not have been slaughtered at the Washington state facility because it was unable to stand on its own, known as a "downer" cow. Veneman estimates that downer cows account for about 150,000-200,000 of the 35 million cows slaughtered annually in the U.S.

In addition, USDA inspectors will no longer mark cows as "inspected and passed" for mad cow disease until test results confirm that the animals have tested negative for the disease. Instead, these animals will be held until the test results are back rather than allowing the meat to enter the food supply.

Under the previous system, animals thought to be at increased risk for the disease due to older age or downer status were selected for mad cow disease screening but allowed to proceed through the slaughter process. In the case of the infected cow in Washington, the meat was distributed to at eight least states and later recalled.

New Meat Safety Regulations

Veneman says the new regulations will take effect immediately and are similar to those implemented by other countries where mad cow disease has been found.

Major changes include:

  • Downer animals: Any animal unable to walk on its own is banned from entering the U.S. food supply.
  • Product holding: Animals selected for mad cow disease screening will be held until test results confirm that the animal does not have the disease.
  • High-risk parts: Brain, spinal cord, and other nervous system-related tissue from cows older than 30 months are prohibited from entering in the U.S. food supply. The small intestine of cattle of all ages is also prohibited.

Other changes affect the procedures during the slaughter process in order to reduce the risk of spreading infected tissue.

Researchers say older cows are considered high-risk for mad cow disease because they may have eaten contaminated feed prior to the protective feed bans enacted in August 1997. In addition, once a cow is infected with mad cow disease it takes 3-6 years before symptoms emerge.

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