USDA Bans Downer
Cattle For Human Food

By Charles Abbott and Randy Fabi

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government said on Tuesday it was moving immediately to tighten oversight of the $27 billion cattle industry and boost consumer confidence after the first case of mad cow disease in the United States.
The moves -- some now endorsed by a once-reluctant industry that is still reeling from the sudden loss of a $3 billion a year beef export market -- came after a fourth straight day of sharply lower cattle prices in U.S. markets.
The USDA is investigating the cause of the first U.S. case of mad cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). The USDA announced on Dec. 23 that the disease was found in a Holstein dairy cow in Washington state.
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman told a press conference that the U.S. government is immediately banning downer cattle -- animals unable to walk on their own at the slaughter plant -- from being used as food for humans.
"The actions we are taking today are steps to enact additional safeguards to protect the public health," she said.
As a precaution, Veneman said, processors would be barred from using the brains, eyes and small intestine of older cattle in human food. Another new regulation seeks to keep spinal tissue out of meat products via "meat recovery systems" that scrape tiny bits of meat off a carcass.
The USDA will work to create an identification system for tracing animals and create an international panel of scientists to review the department's response to the mad cow case.
"This is a rational response to a situation that has now reached a new plane," said Bob Price, president of North America Risk Management Services, a livestock consultancy in Chicago.
Analyst Bob Anderson at Commodity Services Inc., a Des Moines, Iowa, brokerage, said "withholding meat from the food chain from any suspicious cattle is a step forward."
"The identification to trace the cattle, I'm all in favor of that. I don't see anything onerous in what USDA has proposed and I think it would be in the cattlemen's best interest to fully support it," he said.
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association, in a policy shift after the Dec. 23 announcement, backed a "test and hold" stance for suspicious cattle like "downer" animals.
Out of 35 million cattle slaughtered each year in the United States, an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 are downer cattle.
Veneman said the USDA moves will not "cost the USDA significant amounts of money or for that matter the industry significant amounts of money."
The USDA is trying to eliminate possible contamination of meat supplies by neural tissues thought most suspect in carrying the misshapen proteins that characterize bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease.
BSE is a fatal ailment that destroys the brains of infected cattle. Humans contract a form of the disease known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease by eating tissue from the brains, spinal cords or central nervous systems of infected animals.
At least 137 people died from the human variant after mad cow disease struck herds in Britain and Europe a decade ago.
USDA officials believe the infected cow came from Canada. The animal apparently was born in April 1997, a few months before both nations banned the use of cattle remains as an ingredient in cattle rations.
McDonald's Corp., Burger King and other hamburger chains said on Monday that consumer beef demand appeared unaffected so far by the mad cow scare.
But on Tuesday February live cattle futures at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange still closed down the 5.00-cents per pound daily trading limit at 76.175 cents.
Cattle prices are about 14 percent below the levels traded before the Dec. 23 announcement of the mad cow case.
With the U.S. presidential election less than a year away, Democrats this week began calling for revival of a Senate proposal to ban U.S. downer cattle.
"We shouldn't have to play Sherlock Holmes to find out how much meat comes from cows who might have been exposed to mad cow," Democrat Sen. Charles Schumer said on Tuesday.
"But we have no choice because the meat industry continues to fight giving the USDA the ability to track the U.S. meat supply and other common sense measures," he said.
South Korea, Japan, Mexico and two dozen other world customers stopped buying U.S. beef after the mad cow diagnosis was made public last week. Those supplies -- about 10 percent of U.S. annual production -- may swamp the U.S. market and push beef prices lower.
© Reuters 2003. All Rights Reserved.


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