|Food Safety and Inspection
United States Department of Agriculture
Washington, D.C. 20250-3700
Remarks prepared for delivery by Dr. Merle Pierson, USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety before the American Meat Institute Foundation’s BSE Briefing, February 3, 2004, Washington, DC.
Good morning everyone. I want to thank the American Meat Institute for hosting this very important forum. Although the Department had been actively working on BSE for some time, it was just over one month ago that a BSE positive cow was identified in the state of Washington. This, of course, brought BSE “front and center” with everyone who has concerns about animal health, public health, and the beef industry.
The American public remains confident in the U.S. meat supply – and with good reason. In addition to leadership from USDA, organizations such as AMI have taken a key role in tackling the BSE challenge, building on their reputation as leaders in the area of animal health and food safety. I’m especially pleased that AMI organized this meeting so quickly and has provided all of us on the panel an opportunity to update you on the BSE activities of our relevant mission areas.
The Federal government’s swift and substantial reaction to the BSE diagnosis played a vital role in maintaining high consumer confidence. FSIS and its sister agencies moved effectively and forcefully upon the discovery of a BSE case in this country, further strengthening already formidable BSE preventive measures. Being a part of the endless briefings, planning meetings, international trade discussions – most recently in Japan – and all the other events surrounding this has been both challenging and rewarding.
Working together has been critical in addressing the BSE challenge. I believe our actions on this issue will be effective in closing any possible “gaps” between all the links in the farm-to-table chain. Cooperation, communication, and coordination are absolutely essential if we are to be effective in addressing public health issues. FSIS has been working closely with APHIS and other mission areas in USDA, FDA, state governments, industry and consumers to ensure our BSE prevention and response measures are fully effective in the United States.
In fact, our joint efforts began long before December 23, 2003. In 1986, in response to the BSE outbreak that devastated the livestock industry in the United Kingdom, a joint APHIS - FSIS working group began developing a formal response in the event BSE was found the in US. This response plan evolved into comprehensive blue print of next steps if BSE was diagnosed domestically. It was shared with our partners in public health, including the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. The hard work the BSE response team put into preparing the response plan years before paid off by allowing government to respond quickly, decisively and cohesively to this crisis.
I would like to focus the rest of my discussion on what FSIS is doing to protect the food supply from BSE. Some of this may be familiar to you, but I feel it is important we all have the same information regarding the important policies the Agency has implemented.
On December 23, the same day the BSE presumptive tests were reported to us, FSIS issued a press release announcing a recall of all beef product that was processed through the establishment on the day the BSE positive cow was slaughtered – December 9, 2003. FSIS' designation of the recall as Class II was due to the extremely low likelihood that the beef muscle meat contained the infectious agent that causes BSE. According to scientific evidence, the tissues of highest infectivity are the brain and spinal cord from cattle over 30 months of age, and distal ileum of cattle less than 30 months of age. Since these were removed from the rest of the carcass at slaughter, the cuts produced would not be expected to be infected or have an adverse risk to public health. We feel very confident that the meat that did enter the food supply posed virtually no risk to the public’s health. I want to thank all of you for your cooperation and collaboration in those first few days as we recalled the beef connected to the positive BSE finding. The coordination between all parties, including AMI members, was a key factor in getting the word out.
By January fifth, all of the primary, secondary and tertiary establishments that may have received product subject to this recall had been contacted by FSIS compliance officers. All acknowledged being contacted earlier about the recall by their suppliers, confirmed securing whatever product they had upon notification of the recall and of making their customers aware of the recall as well. FSIS is continuing its efforts toward verifying the return and destruction of the recalled products.
On December 30, 2003, Secretary Veneman announced a ban on all non-ambulatory disabled cattle from entering the human food supply. We define non-ambulatory disabled cattle as cattle that cannot rise from a recumbent position or cannot walk. They also include cattle that have broken appendages, severed tendons or ligaments, nerve paralysis, fractured vertebral column or metabolic conditions.
FSIS’ Veterinary Medical Officers, or VMOs, are responsible for enforcing this ban, and we have provided to them clear details on when, and if, cattle are to be condemned at the slaughterhouse. For instance, in the case where an animal has passed the VMO’s ante-mortem inspection at the slaughter establishment and then suffers an acute injury, such as falling and breaking a leg, on its way to the knock box, the VMO will verify that the animal suffered such an acute injury and allow it to be slaughtered. However, in cases where a VMO cannot determine that a specific, acute injury occurred that caused the animal to become non-ambulatory disabled, then the VMO will condemn that animal and prevent it from entering the slaughter establishment.
VMOs will also continue to immediately condemn all cattle that are showing central nervous system symptoms, even if the animal is ambulatory. The VMO will contact the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) Area Veterinarian-in-Charge to allow APHIS the opportunity to collect BSE surveillance samples.
Following the Secretary’s immediate ban on all non-ambulatory disabled cattle, FSIS issued on January 12, 2004 four new regulations that took effect immediately. These regulations were to further enhance safeguards to prevent BSE from entering the food supply. These policies had been under consideration for several months. They also further harmonize our actions with those taken by Canada after the discovery of a BSE cow there in May 2003.
The first policy is actually a notice, which announces that our inspectors are not marking cattle tested for BSE as “inspected and passed” until confirmation is received that the cattle have, in fact, tested negative for BSE. We are referring to this as the “test-and-hold” policy.
The second policy is an interim final rule on specified risk material. We declared that skull, brain, trigeminal ganglia, eyes, vertebral column, spinal cord and dorsal root ganglia of cattle 30 months of age or older and the small intestine of all cattle are specified risk materials and that these are prohibited from entering the human food supply. Tonsils from all cattle were already considered inedible and therefore do not enter the food supply.
To help determine the age of cattle before they are slaughtered, we issued two forms of guidance to our VMOs. When an animal is presented for slaughter, the VMOs need to first examine documentation such as birth records, cattle passports, or some other form of age and identification verification. If the VMO finds there are significant reasons for questioning the validity of these records, or there are no records, then they are to verify the age of the cattle through dental examinations.
When they (VMOs) examine an animal’s teeth and see that at least one of the second set of permanent incisors has erupted, then he/she will consider that animal to be 30 months of age and older. We recognize that permanent incisors of cattle erupt from 24 through 30 months of age, but to be most protective of public health, we will err on the side of caution and go with this prescribed dentition procedure.
The third policy is an interim final rule on advanced meat recovery (AMR). FSIS had previously established and enforced regulations that prohibit spinal cord from being included in products labeled as “meat.” This rule expanded that prohibition to include dorsal root ganglia, clusters of nerve cells connected to the spinal cord along the vertebral column, in addition to spinal cord tissue. Also, because the vertebral column and skull in cattle 30 months and older will be considered inedible, we will not allow them to be used for AMR.
In our efforts to help the owners and operators of establishments that process cattle or produce products using AMR, we are holding a series of teaching workshops from January through March 2004. While these workshops were designed with the small and very small establishments in mind, the documents produced and guidance shared will be available to everyone via the FSIS website. We want to ensure that all processors receive and understand this new regulation. This effort is a prime example of how we reach out and educate partners along the farm-to-table chain to ensure that the safest food reaches American tables.
The first of these workshops was held this past Saturday in Tacoma, Washington and it was very successful. The Agency has scheduled four more in the next few weeks. The sessions are held on Saturdays to meet the needs of many of the businesses because we realize that it is very difficult to schedule time off or close production during the week.
Finally, the fourth policy is an interim final rule to ban the practice of air-injection stunning. This was done to ensure that portions of the brain are not dislocated into the tissues of the carcass as a consequence of stunning cattle during the slaughter process. While the use of this type of stunning device is not common, officially banning its use not only ensures that it will be prohibited domestically, but will also make it a requirement for equivalency in foreign establishments.
All four of these regulations became effective on January 12, 2004. There is
a comment period for each of the final interim rules, and if you have questions
or comments relating to these rules that come up after today’s forum then I
would encourage you to submit your written comments to FSIS’ Docket Clerk by
April 12, 2004 (the deadline).
You can also follow the latest Agency policies on BSE and other factors affecting food safety through FSIS’ Constituent Update – a weekly newsletter that provides a wrap up of key agency information, notices, directives and upcoming meetings. If you are not currently receiving our Constituent Update newsletter, I urge to you sign up for it on our Web site. Of course, there is no cost for signing up for this news service. This is one of many ways we communicate with all segments along the farm-to-table chain.
These recent measures to further prevent BSE transmission in cattle and the
food supply demonstrate how committed the Bush Administration and the Department
of Agriculture are to protecting public health and improving our food safety
system through sound science-based measures. These measures are aggressive and
advanced, and we are quite confident that they will further enhance our efforts
to prevent BSE from getting into the U.S. food supply.
However, we can’t just rely on our measures alone. As I mentioned earlier, all parties need to take responsibility and work together to ensure that our food supply is the safest in the world. Quite often, difficult challenges make us stronger and more resolute in our determination to overcome them. I believe overcoming the BSE challenge will further strengthen our efforts in improving an already robust and effective food safety system in the United States. This is vital to ensuring public health and will in turn ensure consumer confidence in US beef products.
I appreciate your time here today.
For Further Information:
FSIS Congressional and Public Affairs Staff
Phone: (202) 720-3897
Fax: (202) 720-5704