In an offensive move to combat the potential for future incidences of mad cow disease, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is changing the rules.

At a Dec. 30 press conference, Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman said her agency will institute a national animal identification program, and will ban meat from cows that can't walk to stand on their own.

“For more than a decade, the United States has had in place an aggressive surveillance, detection and response program for BSE,” says Veneman. “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.”

USDA reported Dec. 23, 2003 that a cow in Washington State had tested positive for Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, also known as BSE or mad cow disease. However, it is now believed that animal originated from Canada.

The new safeguards designed to bolster the U.S. protection systems against BSE, have been under consideration for many months, Veneman says. “The policies will further strengthen protections against BSE by removing certain animals and specified risk material and tissues from the human food chain,” she says.

While many cattle in the United States can be identified through a variety of systems, the Secretary also announced that USDA will begin immediate implementation of a verifiable system of national animal identification. The development of such a system has been under way for more than a year and a half to achieve uniformity, consistency and efficiency across this national system.

Additionally, USDA will now be more specific as to what can be labeled as meat when advanced meat recovery technology is used to remove muscle tissue from the bone of beef carcasses under high pressure. A hold will be put on all meat from cattle that have been tested for BSE until the test has confirmed negative, and USDA will now prohibit the air-injection stunning of cattle to insure that portions of the brain do not end up in meat intended for human consumption. USDA has also declared that risk materials including skull, brain, eyes, and the spinal cord of cattle over 30 months of age and the small intestine of cattle of all ages, will no longer be allowed in the U.S. food supply.

“These are initial steps that USDA will take to enhance our protection system,” Veneman says. “I am appointing an international panel of scientific experts to provide an objective review of our response actions and identify areas for potential additional enhancements.”

For more than a decade, Veneman says, the United States has had in place an aggressive surveillance, detection and response program for BSE.

According to USDA, The United States has tested over 20,000 head of cattle for BSE in each of the past two years, 47 times the recommended international standard. Since 1989, USDA has banned imports of live ruminants and most ruminant products from the United Kingdom and other countries having BSE. And beginning in 1997, the FDA prohibited the use of most mammalian protein in the manufacture of animal feed intended for cattle and other ruminants.

An independent analysis by Harvard in 2001 and again in 2003 shows that the risk of BSE spreading in the United States is low and any possible spread would have been reversed by the controls we have already put in place, Veneman says.

e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com