AUSTIN, Texas, July 26, 2004 (ENS): University of Texas law
professor and a food safety expert Thomas McGarity is
warning that U.S. meat processing plants can too easily
opt out of federal government regulations that are supposed
to protect the public from mad cow disease.
A loophole in the regulations permits processors to
choose not to implement rigorous standards for specific
controls at specific points in meat processing, simply
by asserting that mad cow disease is unlikely to be
a problem in their facility.
"After reaching that conclusion on their own,
and without government approval, industry is then allowed
to follow far less rigorous industry drafted Standard
Operation Procedures, sometimes called 'prerequisite'
programs, to keep brain, spinal cord and the like out
of edible meat. They are not required to actually check
for mad cow," McGarity writes.
McGarity, president of the Center for Progressive
Regulation, Friday issued a report on the U.S. Department
of Agriculture's (USDA) response to the discovery of
a cow in Washington last December that was infected
with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly
known as mad cow disease.
"Flimsy Firewalls: The Continuing Triumph of Efficiency
over Safety in Regulating Mad Cow Disease Risks,"
was written by McGarity with fellow member of the Center
for Progressive Regulation Dr. Frank Ackerman, director
of the Research and Policy Program at the Global Development
and Environment Institute at Massachusetts' Tufts University.
Calling for "a truly independent federal agency
to oversee food safety enforcement," McGarity says
regulatory measures taken to date "are riddled
with sham safeguards and faux firewalls that fail to
protect public health."
Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, such as mad
cow disease and its human form, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob
Disease, are spread by prions - abnormally shaped proteins
that originate as regular components of neurological
tissues in animals - they are not cellular organisms
or viruses, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
Mad cow disease spreads from one animal to another
by consumption of feed that has been contaminated by
these proteins, such as blood or meat meal, that contains
nervous system tissue from an infected animal. The human
form of the disease can be transmitted if a human being
eats BSE infected meat, or possibly through blood transfusions.
McGarity warns that slaughter and processing establishments
are being permitted to devise their own plans for identifying
and preventing the spread of risky materials, without
any requirement for government approval.
The USDA says that the agency requires that establishments
that slaughter cattle and process the carcasses or parts
develop, implement, and maintain written procedures
for the removal, segregation, and disposition of specified
risk materials (SRM).
In the Final Report of the Japan-United States BSE
Working Group released on July 22 the USDA said, "The
U.S. does not prescribe specific procedures that establishments
must follow because it believes that establishments
should have the flexibility to implement the most appropriate
procedures that will best achieve the requirements of
this rule. USDA inspection personnel verify that written
SRM procedures are followed and effective."
Japan was among the dozens of countries that banned
U.S. beef after the BSE positive cow was discovered,
was one of the largest importers of U.S. beef. USDA
officials Thursday concluded in Tokyo the last of its
three meetings aimed at achieving a better mutual understanding
of the technical issues surrounding the fatal brain-wasting
Japan tests all cattle slaughtered for meat for the
presence of the BSE infective agent and has required
that the United States do the same before it will begin
to import U.S. beef again. Japan has had 11 cases of
BSE and is predicting another possible 50 or 60 cases.
The USDA has maintained that all cattle slaughtered
for beef in the United States cannot be tested but says
it tests a sufficient number to provide for public health
"The scheme of sampling and testing implemented
in the United States since June 1, 2004, is in accordance
with guidelines of the World Organization for Animal
Health and was reviewed by the head of the International
Review Team for the U.S. BSE case, Dr. Ulrich Kihm,
and the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis," the
BSE Working Group report states.
But McGarity and Ackerman say that an overlooked conclusion
of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis of "especially
great concern" is the report's "worst case
analysis." Among their criticisms, McGarity and
Ackerman said that the Harvard computer modeling almost
completely ignores the possiblity of "synergies
among worst case scenarios," which means the interactions
among worst case scenarios.
"The limited analysis of worst case synergy that
the report did undertake (at the behest of peer-reviewers)
identified a scenario in which there was a 25 percent
probability of more than a million cases of BSE occurring
in the United States over a 20 year period," McGarity
and Ackerman point out.
"Rather than expand its worst case analysis in
response to this startling finding," McGarity and
Ackerman write of the Harvard Risk Analysis, "the
authors buried it in one of the tables in an Appendix
and barely mentioned it at all in the text of the report."
But the USDA says surveillance since 1990 has not detected
BSE in U.S. native cattle and emphasizes that the Washington
cow found to be infected with BSE was imported from
The U.S. has an effective program in place to prevent
the introduction of BSE into the U.S. cattle population
since 1989 and measures to prevent amplification through
feed since 1997, the USDA maintains.
The USDA has started on a National Animal Identification
System that it says will help identify animals older
than 30 months, the age at which U.S. officials say
removal of specified risk materials should begin, as
per international guidelines.
Japan's position is that since the United States tests
a "relatively small number of animals," the
data was insufficient and therefore, removal of specified
risk materials should be implemented for cattle of all
The European Union, which has dealt with an outbreak
of BSE since the mi-1980s, tests all cattle older than
30 months for BSE prior to slaughter for human consumption.
McGarity and Ackerman warn in their own report that,
"Establishments' methods for preventing mad cow
are far less formal and far less thorough than the [U.S.]
government's regulations or public statements would
suggest. Establishments are not required to check for
mad cow or even perform simple tests on brain and other
risky nervous system tissues."
Establishments found to have allowed risky materials
in their beef because of failures in the design or implementation
of their self-devised control plans are not penalized.
"The sad truth," said McGarity, "is
that the administration's response to the mad cow discovery
of last December is so inadequate, so shaped by a desire
to prop up industry."sales, that consumers are
left with hollow promises of protection."
McGarity and Ackerman recommend that Congress should
amend the Virus-Serum Toxin Act to allow for voluntary
testing for BSE so that companies that wish to test
to improve their market position may do so.
They suggest a Congresionally mandated deadline for
the National Animal Identification System, user fees
to cover the cost of BSE programs, legislation to allow
recall of contaminated meat, mandatory testing for specified
risk materials, and empowering the USDA to collect financial
penalties for BSE violations.