Steps to Safer Beef?
Much of What Advocates Propose, Cattlemen and Government Oppose
By Margaret Webb Pressler, Washington Post Staff Writer
Food safety has been a top-of-mind issue since the first U.S. case of mad cow disease was discovered just before Christmas. To regular consumers not normally tuned in to debates over the beef industry’s production practices, such scary-sounding terms as “downer cattle” and “advanced meat recovery” are new. In fact, though, these and other safety issues are not bursting onto the scene purely as a result of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE. Consumer advocates, government officials and industry representatives have been fighting many of these production and food-safety battles for years.
Most people agree that the United States has one of the safest food supplies in the world. But food safety can be a moving target as bacteria mutate and industry looks for ways to be as efficient and cost-effective as possible. So, for instance, despite years of criticism, it was only after the BSE incident that the government declared, and industry agreed, that downer cattle — cows too sick or injured to walk — would be eliminated from the food supply.
Here then are nine other changes that food-safety advocates are calling for from the beef industry, along with the positions of industry groups and government regulators.
Make “traceback” mandatory.
Had there been a mandatory traceback system in place in the United States on Dec. 23, when mad cow disease was discovered in Washington state, it would have taken hours, not days, to figure out when and where the cow in question was born and possibly what it had eaten.
With such an identification program, every cow and bull would be tagged at birth with a radio-frequency or handwritten ear tag, recorded in a national database. Every movement of that animal to and from farms, feedlots and slaughterhouse would be noted.
Consumer advocates say this would help identify the origins of not only mad cow disease but also other harmful pathogens, such as listeria, salmonella and the deadly E. coli O157:H7.
“Some animals, for a variety of reasons, come to the slaughterhouse with a heavy load of E. coli in their gut and with lots of it on their hide,” said Carol Tucker Foreman, formerly a top regulator at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and now director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America. “If you could trace back to the farm those animals that come in that way, you could change on-farm practices and you could probably discover why some animals get in that situation.”
Last month, the USDA called for a national traceback system. But consumer advocates worry that Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman did not say it would be mandatory, or if it would be administered by government or industry.
“The secretary is looking at exactly how we could do this,” said USDA spokeswoman Alisa Harrison. “There’s a lot of questions that are still on the table.”
Meanwhile, the livestock industry has been slow to embrace animal traceback, though it has been debated for years. Gary Weber, executive director of regulatory affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said, “It just takes time, when you’ve got a million people whose livelihoods are involved, to get in agreement and get movement.” Many ranchers are also concerned about privacy issues if the government gets access to farm data, he said.
National traceback would also be costly: hundreds of millions of dollars to get it up and running, and tens of millions of dollars a year to keep it operating.
Make recalls mandatory.
As surprising as it may seem, the USDA has no authority to demand the recall of tainted meat; it can only ask companies to cooperate.
And companies do recall meat regularly under this system. J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute, says the industry has a vested interest in moving quickly and thoroughly when meat is found to be unsafe.
“It is simply good for business,” he said, adding that many recalls are initiated by companies.
Critics argue that companies act slowly and not often enough, so they want recalls to be enforced by the government. Currently, the size of each recall is negotiated by the company and agriculture officials, meaning, food-safety groups say, it can take days to order a recall, during which time tainted meat might be sold and consumed.
The two camps fundamentally disagree: The industry says it does make adequate decisions about public safety; consumer groups say it doesn’t.
“We did a whole chart at one point about how a recall usually starts small and then grows,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “The reason it grows is the industry usually has the first draft of the press release, but after a week of investigation the USDA finds out there’s a lot more meat involved.”
CSPI and other consumer groups also want the government to publicly name the companies that have shipped, received or sold recalled meat, information that currently is kept secret. Industry officials say such disclosures would irreparably harm the reputations of good companies. Weber of NCBA cited the example of Beef America of Norfolk, Neb., which was publicly identified as the source of tainted meat in 1997 and eventually closed down.
The USDA would like consumer groups and companies to work out a system they can both live with, and is reviewing whether recalls should be mandatory, the USDA’s Harrison said. “There’s reasons for it and reasons against it,” she said.
Test each carcass.
Meat inspection used to be a visual process, with inspectors looking over every carcass for lesions and obvious problems and stamping each with the USDA seal. But more-recent problems stem from pathogens that cannot be seen. The BSE case has put the spotlight on testing, not inspecting, animal carcasses for disease. Some foreign countries, particularly Japan, want U.S. producers to test every animal, or at least every animal over a certain age, for BSE before they’ll reopen their markets to U.S. beef.
Several consumer groups said last week that they had found lapses in training of federal inspectors to even recognize BSE, and assailed the pro-industry nature of BSE testing. Felicia Nestor, food-safety project director at the Government Accountability Project, for example, said the investigation found that in some regions “companies chose which animals will be tested” for BSE.
Beef processors are opposed to the idea of testing every carcass for BSE, arguing that the risk is low compared with the huge cost — perhaps $70 per carcass. With 35 million cows slaughtered in this country each year, the numbers are indeed dramatic.
But the mad cow case has softened the industry’s position on testing. Up until now, it has argued that more checks weren’t necessary because no BSE had ever been found in this country. Now industry spokesmen don’t object to some additional testing, but how much is under debate.
Consumer and industry groups agree that quicker tests for mad cow disease need to be approved for use in this country. Current tests at U.S. plants take two weeks to yield a result, but other countries have tests that take only hours.
But testing goes way beyond BSE. Consumer groups have been arguing for years that testing of animals for all manner of pathogens should be dramatically increased and regulations tightened.
“We’ve got a very ad-hoc microbial testing system in place,” said Nancy Donley, president of activist group Safe Tables Our Priority, whose 6-year-old son died after eating tainted hamburger. Current testing for E. coli, for example, is not designed to catch the most dangerous strain of the bacteria, E. coli O157:H7. That is tested for with a “limited random sampling program,” she said. She further complained that the government does not have to be notified if a plant gets a positive result from its microbial testing.
The USDA says it is reviewing the country’s testing program in the wake of the BSE discovery.
Limit the use of antibiotics.
Cattle operations first started using antibiotics on animals decades ago.
“Back then, resistance to antibiotics was something that nobody had even thought of,” said Stephen Sundlof, director of the Center for Veterinary Medicine at the Food and Drug Administration.
But antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections are on the rise in humans, and the scientific community is trying to figure out whether the widespread use of antibiotics in cattle is partly responsible. Clearly, a big part of the problem is the overuse of antibiotics in human medicine. But consumer advocates point also to the common use of antibiotics in animal agriculture as daily therapy to prevent disease.
“What you end up with is resistant bacteria in the animal, which get into the meat at the time of slaughter,” said Karen Florini, senior attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund. That resistant bacteria may “teach” bacteria in humans how to be resistant to antibiotics, she said, because bacteria are known to swap genes. Antibiotics also get into the environment through runoff from farms and the animal waste they produce, Florini said, creating more human exposure to resistant bacteria.
Consumer advocates want to greatly scale back the use of animal antibiotics and want the FDA to more forcefully regulate and remove drugs from widespread use. They are especially focused on classes of drugs that have versions used in human medicine, such as fluoroquinolones, a group that includes the human antibiotic Cipro.
The meat industry points out that no data have yet proved a direct relationship between the use of antibiotics on the farm and human drug resistance. “If there isn’t a public threat and the economics are not favorable to change those things,” said NCBA’s Weber, “then why would you make those changes just to satisfy someone’s paranoia?”
The FDA must prove a drug is unsafe before it can withdraw that medicine from use. Therefore, it can take a decade or more to remove a drug from the market. It’s especially hard to pull drugs that might cause resistant strains of bacteria. “It’s very hard to make that one-to-one connection between the use of that drug in animals and the inability of people to be treated with an antimicrobial drug,” Sundlof said.
Instead, the FDA has focused on limiting the use of certain drugs “thought to be the most risky,” he said. Those efforts don’t take as long, although “the companies still have a right to appeal that decision,” Sundlof said.
Move inspection out of USDA.
The Department of Agriculture has a dual mission: to promote agriculture and to police it. Consumer groups say it’s simply not possible for one body to do both.
“USDA cannot be an effective public health agency because Congress has said your primary responsibility is to promote the production and sale of agricultural products,” said former agriculture official Carol Tucker Foreman. The underlying assumption is that the industry has too much sway over the public health efforts the agency makes — such as negotiating over a recall, doing its own microbial testing or repeatedly appealing decisions to ban certain drugs.
Foreman said the USDA’s ties to industry were also evident when the agency asserted that the human food supply was safe after the discovery of BSE in Washington state. “We had a veterinarian telling us there’s no human health risk,” she said. “How come no one from the Centers for Disease Control or Health and Human Services was there telling us the food supply was safe?”
Just about every consumer group that weighs in on food safety believes there should be a separate food-safety agency that would incorporate the inspection and enforcement functions of both the USDA and FDA into one cohesive authority. The industry is not necessarily opposed to such an agency, but it forcefully defends the USDA’s record on food safety.
“The Food Safety and Inspection Service
Naturally, the USDA agrees with that assessment. “We feel we have a very strong regulatory system that protects public health,” Harrison said.
Clean up the farms.
Reducing food-borne pathogens in the nation’s beef supply can, and should, begin on the farm. On this, the industry and its critics agree.
But how to get there is a question that ignites a bitter battle.
The biggest problem consumer advocates see is that farm runoff, tainted wash water and other deficiencies mean cattle manure can get onto fruits and vegetables grown nearby, said DeWaal of CSPI. “We track food-poisoning outbreaks, and 40 percent of the outbreaks linked to fruits and vegetables are from animal pathogens.”
Industry critics also cite crowded feedlots and trucks as prime culprits in the disease rates of industrially raised cattle.
Critics credit FDA for producing a list of good agricultural practices, but they’re voluntary and therefore not enforceable. “We need an agency that’s in charge of food safety on the farm,” DeWaal said.
Farm groups bristle at this suggestion. They argue that the prevalence of some pathogens has been decreasing because farms already are getting safer. Farmers say they don’t need more regulation, they need financial incentives to develop safety programs that they can’t afford on their own.
“If you make it an economic decision, and that economic decision comes down on the side of doing the right thing, it’ll work,” said Tom Buis, vice president of government relations for the National Farmers Union.
He said $2 billion in proposed annual spending for farm-safety projects was cut in the 2002 farm bill to just $41 million a year.
Eliminate animal products from feed.
In 1997, the FDA banned the addition of cow meat and bone meal to cattle feed. The cannibalistic practice is widely believed to present the greatest risk for the spread of BSE.
Though this feed ban was considered a positive step toward the prevention of mad cow disease, consumer advocates say there are several serious loopholes in the law that endanger animal, and possibly human, health.
Food-safety advocates are concerned that bovine blood collected in the slaughterhouse is processed into a protein-rich powder used as a milk replacer for some calves. This product is considerably cheaper than other milk alternatives, and the industry insists there is no scientific evidence that BSE can be transmitted in blood.
“Our concern is that science-based justification for some decision-making may be losing out,” said Rex Runyon, vice president of the American Feed Industry Association. “Decisions should not be politically motivated or based on emotion.”
Consumer advocates say it also hasn’t been proven that BSE cannot be transmitted in blood products, so why not take the more cautious path? In Europe, blood cannot be fed to cows. Consumer groups also point to the news last month that a British patient had died of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human form of BSE, after receiving a transfusion from someone infected with the disease.
Food-safety groups say all animal products should be banned from all animal feed. Currently, cattle byproducts can still be used in feed for hogs and chickens. But because hog and chicken byproducts are allowed to be fed back to cows, same-species food is still a possibility. “Bottom line, there are ways that ruminants — cows and sheep — are going to eat ruminants, even with this feed ban,” said Patty Lovera, deputy director of Public Citizen.
Food-safety advocates, though, acknowledge that disallowing the recycling of animal waste raises the question of what to do with it.
The feed industry is arguing for stricter regulation and enforcement, but not an outright ban on animal products in feed. Sundlof of the FDA said the agency is considering changes to the feed ban, and the loophole issues critics complain about “are still clearly on the table.”
Limit “advanced meat recovery.”
The USDA, as part of new regulations aimed at stemming the possible spread of BSE, has banned certain uses of advanced meat recovery, a controversial mechanized system that gets the last bits of meat off small and odd-shaped cattle bones through grinding and sifting. USDA said AMR can no longer be used on head, neck and back bones in cattle over 30 months of age. It set those guidelines because tissues of the central nervous system, brain and spinal cord are the primary infection sites for BSE, and most BSE infections don’t show up until cows are older.
But the new safeguards don’t go far enough for most consumer groups, which want to see AMR banned around the spinal columns of animals of all ages.
“We don’t have a test that will show the presence of this disease in animals younger than 20 months, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there,” said Foreman of the Consumer Federation of America. BSE has been found in cattle as young as 21 months old.
The industry opposes expanding the ban. It says AMR keeps processing plants from having to use people to do the intricate meat extraction from these complicated bones, which can cause repetitive motion injuries to workers. Officials also argue for its safety.
“Before backbones enter AMR systems, the spinal cord is removed,” said Boyle of the American Meat Institute. “Meat derived from AMR systems is safe.”
DeWaal of CSPI said removing the spinal column is hard to do perfectly with no contamination of surrounding tissues. In fact, USDA tests have shown that 35 percent of the meat tested from AMR systems contains some central nervous system tissue.
“It produces a small fraction of the ground beef we eat, but it’s not required to be labeled and it introduces an unnecessary risk,” DeWaal said.
Harrison of the USDA said the debate isn’t over. “There is a 90-day comment period during which we are taking public comments” on the new rule, she said.
Mandate country-of-origin labeling.
The fight over this labeling issue will come to a head on Tuesday when hundreds of farmers and farm lobbyists will converge on Washington. Their goal will be to persuade senators to keep alive legislation mandating that all fruits, vegetables and meat be labeled with their country of origin.
The country-of-origin labeling, or COL, law, was passed by Congress in the 2002 farm bill and should become effective this September. But a provision in the fiscal 2004 omnibus legislation package before the Senate on Tuesday would delay country-of-origin labeling for two years. Farmers want to get that provision stricken from the omnibus bill.
The National Farmers Union says country-of-origin labeling will give domestic farmers a marketing advantage because American consumers will want to purchase U.S.-raised beef over beef from other countries. Currently, they argue, many shoppers believe anything with a USDA stamp on it is domestically produced. But that’s not so.
Food-safety advocates have become big supporters of the bill, too, arguing the COL law would give consumers the food-safety information they need. If consumers know where something is from, they can avoid products from countries that have had problems with contaminations or disease outbreaks.
“It’s a basic right-to-know issue,” said Lovera of Public Citizen.
The major cattle and meat-processing groups are fighting the legislation.
“The USDA has estimated that it would cost a huge amount of money at a time when the industry is already dealing with the cost of BSE,” said Weber of NCBA. “It’s just a bad time to try to do something on top of that.”
He said the industry would willingly implement a voluntary program to “find out where the costs are and if it’s a marketing advantage or not.”
USDA spokeswoman Harrison said the agency is moving forward as mandated by the 2002 farm bill. “There are some people that are trying to delay its implementation,” she said, “but that’s up to Congress.”