Jun 28, 2002 (CIDRAP News) The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced this week that it will begin using laboratory testing to ensure that beef products from mechanical "advanced meat recovery" (AMR) systems are free of spinal cord tissue.
Currently, USDA inspectors visually examine vertebral columns from beef cattle to ensure that the spinal cord has been removed before the carcasses are processed in AMR systems, according to Steven Cohen, a spokesman for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) in Washington, DC. Under the new directive, AMR-processed meat samples will be laboratory-tested for the presence of spinal cord tissue, he said.
USDA officials said the new testing program reflects the need for accurate labeling more than concern for safety. Central nervous system (CNS) tissue from animals infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or mad cow disease) contains the BSE pathogen, prion protein, which is believed to cause variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. However, no cases of BSE have been found in US cattle to date. In a 1996 survey, the FSIS found spinal cord tissue in "a small percentage" of AMR product samples, and in March 1997 the agency said spinal cord tissue "is not expected and cannot be allowed" in such products.
AMR systems enable beef processors to mechanically remove remnants of muscle tissue from beef carcasses without breaking bones. The systems were introduced in the early 1990s, before BSE became a concern, Cohen told CIDRAP News. Around that time, USDA developed the rule that a beef product could not be labeled as meat if it contained spinal cord tissue, he said. Labeling an AMR-processed product containing spinal cord tissue as meat would be a "misbranding violation," not a safety violation, he said.
The FSIS also said it would change an already-proposed AMR rule by adding specifications for the removal of CNS. Additional public comments on the rule will be sought before it is adopted, the agency said in a news release.
"These measures will strengthen existing policies and regulations regarding advanced meat recovery systems," Elsa A. Murano, USDA under secretary for food safety, said in the news release. "At the same time these steps will help ensure that meat products are accurately labeled."
Currently, FSIS inspectors can take samples of AMR product if they believe the processor is not removing all spinal cord tissue, the agency said. Under the new directive, inspectors will be required to test AMR product routinely. If spinal cord tissue is found, inspectors will take action to prevent use of the product and the AMR system until the problem is corrected, officials said. If the company has distributed the product, FSIS will request a voluntary recall.
Establishment of the testing program for AMR products follows the evaluation of two different testing methods to determine which works better, according to Cohen. He said the testing program should begin by the end of July. AMR systems are used in both beef and pork processing plants, but the lab testing will apply only to beef products for now, he said. About 53 processing plants will be affected, Cohen said.
USDA news release
FSIS report on its 1996 survey of AMR systems