May 21, 2004 (CIDRAP News) The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) acknowledged today that it allowed the importation of about 7.3 million pounds of Canadian beef that was officially banned under rules intended to keep bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) out of the United States.
But the USDA said the meat, imported since last summer, did not represent any risk to consumers because it came from cattle under 30 months of age. BSE has very rarely been found in animals younger than 30 months.
"We're talking about products that are safe products," Undersecretary for Food Safety Elsa Murano said at a news briefing. "All these products came from animals that were younger than 30 months of age. Therefore, we're not talking about a food safety issue here."
USDA officials discussed the issue in response to news reports published yesterday. A Washington Post report, quoting figures from a cattlemen's organization, said 33 million pounds of "processed" beef was imported since last summer despite the official ban. The Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund USA (R-CALF USA), based in Billings, Mont., calculated that amount from statistics from the Census Bureau and the USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service, the story said.
Also yesterday, a Reuters report said the USDA disclosed that it had allowed Canadian plants to send into the United States about 10 million pounds of hamburger and other cuts of beef that were officially banned.
The USDA banned all imports of Canadian beef and live cattle after a BSE case was discovered in a cow from an Alberta farm in May 2003. In August the agency reopened the border to boneless meat (but not ground meat) from cattle younger than 30 months old, boneless veal from calves younger than 36 weeks, and fresh or frozen beef liver. Live cattle and other categories of beef are still banned.
Murano said she didn't know how R-CALF USA arrived at the figure of 33 million pounds of processed beef imported. She said the USDA Food Safety and Inspection service's import records showed that the questionable imports included 5.6 million pounds of processed products such as hot dogs, sausages, and deli meats; about 1.5 million pounds of organs, such as tongue, hearts, and kidneys; 139,298 pounds of bone-in cuts admitted after Apr 19; and 475 pounds of hamburger.
Ron DeHaven, administrator of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), said all of the processed beef that was imported was made from beef that would not have been subject to the ban in its unprocessed form. "All of those items were included in our list of [permitted] products that we put on the website August 8 as enterable products," he said. "The only thing that changed was our allowing those products . . . to be processed before they entered the United States."
While insisting that the products posed no risk to consumers, USDA officials admitted mistakes in handling the matter. "Clearly the process and our failure to announce some of these actions was flawed," DeHaven said.
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman didn't know about the "additional process product" coming into the United States, said Alisa Harrison, a spokeswoman for Veneman. Harrison also said that APHIS followed proper food safety procedures but "did fail to obtain the approval for their actions from the appropriate USDA policy and legal representative."
DeHaven said the Canadian Food Inspection Agency certified that the imported products were not mixed during processing with any other meat products that could have posed a risk. He also said most of the organ meats allowed into the country were bound for Mexico.
In November 2003 the USDA proposed to open the border to more Canadian beef products and to live Canadian cattle younger than 30 months, but that proposal was put on hold after the first US case of BSE was found last December. In March the agency invited more public comments on the proposal, and the comments are still being evaluated, according to Andrea McNally, an APHIS spokeswoman. The proposal would allow importation of meat from older cattle, but excluding high-risk tissues such as the skull, brain, eyes, vertebral column, and spinal cord.
Yesterday's news reports of the USDA's actions triggered sharp criticism from Congress. "This is a breach of process and the public trust," said Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D. "For USDA to allow over 30 million pounds of Canadian beef to be imported without notifying Congress or the public is completely unacceptable."
At today's briefing, USDA officials also discussed their plan to greatly increase BSE testing starting in June. DeHaven said the agency hopes to test "somewhere in excess of 200,000 animals" over the next 12 to 18 months in the effort to determine whether more cases of BSE exist in the United States.
He said officials expect that the rapid tests used in the surveillance program will sometimes yield inconclusive results. When that happens, samples will be sent to a national USDA laboratory in Ames, Iowa, for confirmatory testing, which will take 4 to 8 days, he said. The USDA will hold the carcasses involved until the confirmatory test results are available.
Transcript of USDA briefing