Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman told reporters, ”For more than a decade, the United States has had in place an aggressive surveillance, detection and response program for [bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow 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.”
The department also introduced new rules to keep the food supply free of the tissues that could spread mad cow disease, such as the brains, eyes, spinal cords of cows over 30 months old. Veneman also announced a new regulation to keep spinal tissue from entering meat products as a result of using a method that scrape tiny bits of meat off the cow’s bones.
The secretary stressed that the new policies had been under consideration for several months, and their development was spurred by the finding of a case of BSE in Canada in May.
The announcement came one week after the United States reported its first case of mad cow disease. The USDA suspects the cow was imported from Canada, and records reflect it was born in April 1997 before both nations instituted restrictions on cattle feed aimed at protecting the animals from the disease.
Veneman said the ban, which goes into effect immediately, on meat from so-called downer cows that are unable to walk should not impose any hardship on the cattle producers or consumers.
“I don’t expect an increase in the price to consumers,” she said. “The number of cattle that enter the food supply currently as downer [non-ambulatory] animals is very small.”
Industry groups impacted by the ban on downer cattle had mixed reactions to the announcement.
“Consumer confidence is the most important thing,” Chandler Keys of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association told Reuters. “If people don’t buy steaks, we don’t get paid.”
The American Meat Institute, representing slaughter companies, told Reuters that banning downer cattle is a “waste of perfectly safe beef.”
Carol Tucker Foreman, a food safety expert with the Consumer Federation of America, praised the move and told Reuters a ban on downer cattle was one of several steps needed to protect consumers.
“I think we have to stop putting meat from sick animals into the food supply,” Foreman said.
Veneman also announced that USDA will begin implementing a national animal identification system for tracking cattle.
“USDA has worked with partners at the federal and state levels and in industry for the past year and a half on the adoption of standards for a verifiable nationwide animal identification system to help enhance the speed and accuracy of our response to disease outbreaks across many different animal species,” Veneman said.
“I have asked USDA’s chief information officer to expedite the development of the technology architecture to implement this system a top priority,” she continued.
Another new safeguard would keep any animal tested for mad cow disease from being allowed into the food supply until test results are confirmed. The infected U.S. cow was sent to meatpacking plants some two weeks before test results showed that it had mad cow disease.
The USDA will also prohibit air injection stunning of cattle, a pre-slaughter practice that can disperse brain tissue.
One challenge that will face the USDA as it implements these rules is determining a way to screen downer cows for mad cow disease, since that had primarily been done at the slaughterhouse.
Veneman said the USDA would look at “other ways” to test downers, possibly on farms.