Last week, Market To Market reported on complaints from various sectors about the USDA's failure or unwillingness to follow its own testing protocol for mad cow disease. This week, USDA is trying to explain how more than 1,000 violations of federal rules aimed at protecting consumers from the disease could occur at the nation's meatpacking plants.
Though no specific companies were cited in a USDA report, in at least one case a government inspector shut down plant operations based on what he saw.
The release of the report has refocused mad cow safety issues from the feedlot to the packing house, where the debate centers on whether the problem is sporadic or system-wide.
The Agriculture Department announced this week that inspectors have discovered more than 1,000 violations of packing plant rules designed to prevent mad cow disease from reaching humans.
The rules were implemented in the wake of America's first confirmed case of mad cow disease late in 2003. They require certain neurological organs and tissues -- which can carry the disease -- to be removed from cattle older than 30 months. USDA said Monday that it had cited slaughterhouses and packing plants 1,036 times for not removing those items, which are commonly referred to as specified risk materials or SRMs. The violations occurred over a 17-month period ending last May.
USDA officials claim the public was not endangered by the violations and the number of infractions amounts to less than 1 percent of all citations at the respective plants.
The Agriculture Department released the data in response to requests made by several groups under the Freedom of Information Act. One of the groups, Public Citizen claims the records show serious problems in enforcing rules. Public Citizen officials claim "there were mistakes in identifying the ages in cattle, which affected whether at-risk materials were removed."
Meatpacking industry representatives said the number of violations was miniscule and not a cause for concern. The American Meat Institute claims the numbers demonstrate a compliance level exceeding 99.9 percent. According to AMI, "The chance of these limited instances posing any risk to the public is so remote that it is like being struck by lightning and winning the lottery on the same day."