USDA begins testing for spinal cord in mechanically separated beef


Mar 5, 2003 (CIDRAP News) – The US Department of Agriculture says it has begun routine sampling of beef from "advanced meat recovery" (AMR) systems to make sure it doesn't contain spinal cord tissue. AMR systems mechanically cut meat from carcasses without breaking bones.

Consuming spinal cord or other central nervous system (CNS) tissue from animals infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, is considered a risk factor for variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. But BSE has not been seen in the United States, and USDA officials say the inspection program is not primarily a food safety measure.

"Basically this is not a food safety issue, it's a misbranding issue," Andrea McNally of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) told CIDRAP News. "If a product contains spinal cord tissue it should not be labeled as meat."

However, she also said that when Harvard University experts assessed the risk of BSE entering the United States a few years ago, they suggested that extra steps be taken to ensure that CNS tissue is kept out of beef produced by AMR systems. "That's one thing we're taking into account. But since we don't have BSE in this country, that's not the main reason we're doing this," McNally said.

The routine sampling program began Mar 3, the FSIS said in a news release. The program stems from a 2002 survey in which about 35% of product samples from AMR systems contained spinal cord tissue or other CNS-associated tissue, the FSIS reported. McNally said the survey covered all 34 US plants that have AMR systems. After the survey, the FSIS announced in December 2002 that it would eventually begin routine sampling of beef from AMR systems.

If spinal cord tissue is found in product samples, product still in the plant will have to be relabeled as "mechanically separated beef" or else used for nonfood purposes, according to FSIS. If the product has been shipped out, FSIS will ask the company to recall it. "Inspection personnel also will conduct follow-up sampling to verify that the establishment has taken appropriate corrective action," the FSIS release says. "AMR production will not be allowed to resume until FSIS determines that those corrective actions have been successful."

Previously, FSIS inspectors did not routinely test products from AMR systems, the agency said. Instead, officials visually inspected the systems and then tested product samples if they suspected that the plant was not adequately removing the spinal cord.

McNally couldn't say how often AMR-derived beef will be tested. "The frequency is not necessarily set," she said. "It involves statistically taking enough samples to have a confidence that we would catch spinal cord if it it were in the product."

Many products that contain ground beef may include meat from AMR systems, according to McNally. Examples include sausages, meat patties, gravies, chili products, sauces, and soup bases.

FSIS will use the 2002 survey data in proposing new rules that will include specifications for the removal of CNS tissue in AMR systems, officials said.

See also:

FSIS news release, with links to further information

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