Albion Monitor /News
[Editor's note: In an article in the current "Food and Drug Law Journal," Michael R.Taylor boasts of successes made in food safety in recent years through industry and government collaboration. While he gives the highest priority to reducing risk of illness, Taylor also cites the importance of commercial concerns, such as managing the introduction of "new food technologies," facilitating international trade, and maintaining public confidence in the food supply.

Although health and nutrition activists have long criticized the cozy relationship between food industry / pharmaceutical special interests and federal agencies, the USDA and FDA drew particular fire during the years of his government tenure. From 1994-96 Taylor served as both the Acting Under Secretary for Food Safety at the USDA and administrator for its Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Before that, he served for three years as deputy commissioner for policy at FDA where he oversaw the agency's policy development activities and the processing of all regulations. While he was at the FDA, the agency began its aggressive pursuit of the vitamin and dietary suppliment industry for making any health claims whatsoever.]

USDA Fails to Protect Consumers From Meat Industry

by Linda Golodner
National Consumers League

Meat packers are lobbying to allow the continued processing of back bone, neck bone and, possibly, spinal cord into meat products
The failure of the meat industry and government regulators to put public safety ahead of profits has, sadly, become as much a part of our political history as an empty campaign promise.

For example, just two years ago, the meat industry eagerly joined the assault by congressional Republicans on nine decades of hard-won food-safety law. The public, ever more wary of deadly E. coli poisoning and other meat-safety threats, was appropriately outraged. Congressional efforts to dismantle vital public-health regulation were stopped in their tracks, and the meat industry's role did little to improve a spotty track record of putting consumers first.

Some people never learn. Today, even as a new study in the respected journal Nature warns that the deaths linked so far to England's "Mad Cow" (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) disease may just be the tip of the epidemiological iceberg, big meat packers are lobbying the US Department of Agriculture to allow the continued processing of back bone, neck bone and, possibly, spinal cord into meat products.

"Finished product... appears to be a blood, bone marrow and muscle gumbo," reported one USDA field agent
Human consumption of BSE-infected beef parts, particularly the brain, spinal cord and other soft tissue, has been linked to the human equivalent of BSE, called Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. So far, USDA hasn't said no to this hidden practice, which is now banned in both England and France. As a result, this potentially deadly ingredient is finding its way into the retail ground beef supply.

Worse, consumers have no way of knowing that they are buying. The department even refuses to enforce current law that makes it illegal for processors to label such bone-meat-marrow combinations as "meat."

The culprit is a relatively recent use of a meat-processing technology called bone-press advanced meat recovery. Employed by some 75 of the nation's largest meat packers, AMR utilizes cannon-shaped machines to literally squeeze meat off the bones. This no doubt increases efficiency and profits but creates three problems. First, it may include tissue from spinal cords. Second, the "meat" is higher in cholesterol-forming fat and marrow, consisting of as much as 42 percent of the final product, according to an Ohio State University report. Third, it contains higher concentrations of bone parts.

Many supermarkets and major hamburger chains like McDonald's and Burger King don't want spinal cord and marrow in their meat, and they won't use this meat-marrow-bone concoction. But there is good reason to believe other restaurants and grocery stores are selling it, and since retail-level testing is difficult, there is no easy way of knowing for sure who is and who isn't. In fact, a study conducted by USDA's own field staff found that 16 out of 48 plants using AMR systems were not in compliance with regulations. "Finished product... appears to be a blood, bone marrow and muscle gumbo," reported one USDA field agent.

The federal Food and Drug Administration has done its share. It recently announced a proposed rule to ban the use of cattle, sheep and other animal parts in the manufacture of products intended for cattle and other animal feed. While FDA believes the risk of BSE in this country is small, it is acting on the principle that it is not a risk worth taking.

The stark difference in the approaches of these two regulatory bodies, which share federal responsibility for safeguarding public health, begs a rather curious question: Who is receiving the greater degree of protection here, cows or people?

What USDA needs to do is clear. First, it must immediately issue a directive prohibiting the use of bones in mechanical meat recovery systems. Second, the department must establish appropriate measurements to ensure that illegal and unsafe amounts of bone and marrow are not being passed on to consumers. Finally, it must enforce its own regulations by insisting that meat processors comply with federal laws which expressly prohibit mixtures of bone, marrow and spinal cord being labeled as "meat."

What is at stake is not only public safety but the credibility of USDA. Long saddled with the competing and, sometimes, contradictory demands of both promoting the meat and poultry industry and safeguarding consumers, the department has not always ended up on the right side of the equation. Twenty years ago, when the predecessor machines to today's advanced meat recovery systems were first introduced, USDA did the right thing. The law forbidding meat-marrow-bone concoctions to be sold as "meat" effectively kept a risky technology on the drawing board. Now, it must update its approach to thoughtfully regulate a better but still imperfect process.

Should it need any further motivation to meet FDA's standard, USDA need not go any further than the Nature article. As one internationally recognized scientist commented to the media: "Scientists, as well as politicians, have been tempted to draw comforting conclusions from the fact that only 14 cases have been identified in Britain. The study shows that the total number of cases that can be predicted ranges from about a 100 to tens of thousands. Even in another four years' time, considerable uncertainty may remain."

Let's be certain this time.

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Albion Monitor April 15, 1997 (

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