Noncompliance Records Show Plants Failed to Follow Regulations
WASHINGTON, D.C. - In stark contrast to the public relations message touted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the beef industry that the U.S. regulatory system is adequate to prevent the spread of mad cow disease, an analysis released today by the consumer group Public Citizen found significant lapses in the industry's compliance with federal rules.
The analysis stems from a December 2004 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from Public Citizen to the USDA for all "noncompliance records" (NRs) related to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). Public Citizen received copies of 829 records on Aug. 15. (Read the analysis.)More than half the violations (460) occurred because slaughter plants did not have an adequate plan for dealing with BSE in their plant's food safety plan, as required by the USDA, the analysis shows. Of those 460 violations, 60 percent described plans that contained no mention of BSE at all.
"The fact that 60 percent of the violations were due to a failure to even mention BSE or risk materials such as brains and spinal cords is significant," said Patty Lovera, deputy director of Public Citizen's food program. "If officials running a meat plant cannot be bothered to recognize the risk of BSE when writing their safety plan, how much of a priority is it in daily operations and training of staff?"
The analysis also found that:
Violations of rules about the removal and handling of specified risk material (SRMs) occurred at 131 plants in at least 35 states. SRMs are the high-risk materials, such as brains and spinal cords, most likely to be infectious. More than 30 percent of the NRs analyzed were due to either improperly handling or removing SRMs. The SRM ban is considered a critical firewall in protecting the food supply from BSE.
The violations described in the NRs occurred from January 2004 through March 2005. This shows that the problems in the plants persisted long after plants should have adapted to new rules issued in January 2004 after the discovery of the first case of BSE in the United States.
In 10 percent of the NRs analyzed, plants incorrectly identified the age of cattle. Properly determining the age of cattle is a crucial step in proper SRM removal because the definition of SRMs is dependent on age; in cattle older than 30 months, there is a greater likelihood that SRM will carry BSE and therefore must be removed. Accurately identifying the head, spine and carcass of cattle by age is necessary to ensure that all SRMs are removed as the carcass moves down the slaughter line.
"These enforcement records only increase our concerns about how easily potentially infected cattle are bypassing inspection points at slaughterhouses, creating one more opportunity for infected meat to slip through the system," said Tony Corbo, legislative representative of Public Citizen's food program. "We're approaching the two-year mark of our first case of mad cow in the United States, yet the government is still lagging behind on protecting consumers."
Public Citizen sent the FOIA request to the USDA in December 2004 after the chairman of the USDA meat inspectors union, Stan Painter, raised concerns about the agency's policy for ensuring that cattle age is properly determined. Instead of investigating whether the policy was adequate, the agency opened a misconduct investigation on Painter. The investigation was closed this week, shortly after Public Citizen received the documentation, which contained more than 80 records of plants improperly identifying cattle age.
Public Citizen is a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. For more information, please visit www.citizen.org.