Washington Still more can be done to try to keep mad cow disease -- and even more prevalent deadly illnesses -- out of the nation's beef supply, but experts disagree on just how much more regulation is necessary.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Tuesday banned ill and injured cattle from human food supplies, prohibited human consumption of older cows' brains and spinal cords and created regulations on the tracking, testing and slaughtering of cattle. The actions were lauded by nearly every food-safety expert.
"We were dancing around the office when we heard the news," said Karen Taylor Mitchell, the Burlington, Vt.-based executive director of Safe Tables Our Priority, or STOP, a national food safety group formed by relatives of people who died from food-related illnesses. "We applaud the USDA for this great first step. It's really the first significant progress we've seen from this administration on food safety. It's a shame it takes such a huge crisis to drive progress."
Two safety concerns remain: Should more be done to combat mad cow disease in the United States? And what should be done about other, more lethal, problems with the beef supply?
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman's ban on human consumption of ill and injured cattle addressed the major recommendation from some Democratic lawmakers and consumer and animal-rights groups. Those animals are at the highest risk of being infected with mad cow disease.
But there are only 195,000 sick or injured cattle each year out of the 35 million-plus animals slaughtered. And so far, only one cow was found sickened by mad cow disease.
Food safety is a bigger issue than mad cow disease, experts say. Consumer and food safety groups -- including STOP, the Government Accountability Project and the Consumers Federation of America -- called for even tougher meat and cattle tracking systems than the one outlined by Veneman on Tuesday.
The U.S. meat inspection system is based on a 1906 law in which federal inspectors look for obvious flaws in beef, rather than relying on scientific tests for bacteria and other pathogens, said Michael Taylor, a former administrator of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.
"The visual approach to inspection is not really sufficient to address the food safety problem; there's a need to transform the system," Taylor said. "You can't see bacteria."
But bacteria kill. An estimated 5,000 people die each year from food-borne illnesses such as salmonella, listeria, and E. coli, Mitchell said.
More and better microbiological testing is needed to protect consumers against such organisms, said Dr. Christopher Braden of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"I think that there is a way we can improve safety and still be able to conduct profitable business," Braden said.
From 1998 through 2000, nearly 109 million pounds of meat and meat products were recalled in the United States for problems ranging from contamination with bacteria to undercooking of ready-to-eat foods. Just 24 percent of that meat was recovered, according to data on a USDA Web site.