Health fears curb beef process
Packers retreat from scraping meat off spinal columns
By PHILIP BRASHER
REGISTER WASHINGTON BUREAU
July 8, 2005
Washington, D.C. - The chances of eating a burger or hot dog that contains a bit of spinal tissue has gone down.
After pressure from regulators, activists and restaurants, fewer meatpackers are using a mechanical deboning process that consumer activists say risks spreading mad cow disease.
The process, known as "advanced meat recovery," scrapes bits of beef from spinal columns and other bones, meat that profit-conscious packers don't want to waste. The meat is then used in beef patties, pizza toppings, hot dogs and other products.
Consumers can't tell whether beef contains the meat because no special labeling is required.
Tyson Foods Inc., the nation's largest beef packer, in January shut down the equipment at the last of eight plants that had been using it, company spokesman Gary Mickelson said.
He said the decision was due to "reduced customer demand for this material" as well as company concerns about meeting federal regulations.
At least two of Tyson's plants were cited for violations last year because of meat contaminated by nervous system tissue.
Tyson's decision leaves Cargill Inc. as the only one of the nation's three dominant beef packers that continues to use the process. No. 3 Swift & Co. discontinued it in 2002.
"It's a luxury the industry can no longer afford," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, a food-safety specialist with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group.
Cargill spokesman Mark Klein said the meat is tested regularly, both by company workers and federal inspectors, for nervous system tissue and isn't sold if a sample tests positive. He declined to say how much beef Cargill produces with the method, citing proprietary reasons.
Fourteen plants still use the equipment nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service, down from the 34 that were doing so before the discovery of the nation's first case of mad cow disease in 2003. USDA officials declined to provide a list of the plants.
Mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is linked to a brain-wasting disease in humans and thought to be contracted by eating infected nervous system tissue.
Agriculture Department regulations that restricted use of the equipment on older cattle - considered the chief risk for the disease - had a lot to do with the drop, industry officials say.
But many processors stopped "just because of marketing and customer issues," said Jim Hodges, president of the American Meat Institute Foundation.
The trade group estimated in 2004 that packers produce 45 million pounds of "advanced meat recovery" beef annually, less than 0.2 percent of their beef output.
Several leading fast-food companies, including McDonald's, have long objected to the product, and it also is not permitted in the federal school lunch program.
In 2004, the USDA stopped packers from using the equipment on spinal columns from cattle 30 months of age and older.
Consumer advocates said the equipment also should not be used on backbones from younger cattle in the slight chance that the tissue could carry the proteins that carry mad cow.
A spokesman for the food-safety agency said tighter restrictions are being considered.
"We don't know enough about this disease to say that all spinal cords from cattle 30 months or younger are totally free of the disease," DeWaal said.
Packers have struggled for some time to keep nervous system tissue out of meat that is scraped from spinal columns.
In 2002, one-third of the advanced meat recovery beef samples tested by the USDA contained bits of spinal cord or other nervous system tissue.
In 2004, the USDA cited at least six plants, including three of five Cargill facilities and the two Tyson plants, after finding contaminated meat.
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