Earlier this month, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture reiterated the government's faith in the safety of the nation's beef supply: "Even if there were no testing [for mad cow disease], the food-safety protocols would still be there," he said. But the food safety protocols have turned out not to be infallible.
In records released last week, the USDA acknowledged that slaughterhouses and processing plants violated those rules more than 1,000 times between January 2004 and May 2005.
The rules indicate that brains, spinal cords and other tissues at high risk for transmitting bovine spongiform encephalopathy—called specific risk materials—be removed from all cattle over the age of 30 months before they are processed for meat or animal feed.
"The food safety protocols aren't good enough," said Consumers Union senior scientist Michael Hansen, Ph.D. "They?ve found animals below the age of 30 months that have tested positive for BSE." In addition, Hansen said, researchers have found the disease in other tissues, such as muscles or inflamed livers and kidneys, when they have studied rodents and sheep, and even people infected with Creutzfeld-Jakob, the human variant of the disease. "They haven't looked at cattle yet," he said, describing an approach he labeled "Don't look, don't find."
"[There is] almost like a Keystone Cops quality, so it doesn't surprise us that there's violations going on," Hansen said.
The USDA said the number of violations accounts for less than 1 percent of all citations at those plants. "At no point in time did SRMs get to consumers," a USDA spokeswoman reportedly told consumer groups, such as Public Citizen, which filed a Freedom of Information Act request to compel the government to release the data.
Retailers must be getting nervous about the impact that repeated scares will have on consumers, though. On Aug. 2—just days after a third possible case of mad cow was identified (and was later determined to be negative), Albertsons, the second-largest supermarket chain in the country, announced its own line of all-natural ground beef products, under the name Wild Harvest. "Today, more than ever, customers are looking for more all-natural alternatives across all departments in our stores," said Duncan MacNaughton, Albertsons' executive vice president of merchandising. The cattle from which the beef is produced are raised on a vegetarian diet and never receive added growth hormones or antibiotics, the company said.