USDA slammed for letting high-risk downer cattle reach consumers+
(Japan Economic Newswire Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)WASHINGTON, Feb. 8_(Kyodo) _ U.S. beef inspectors have failed to fully comply with rules banning cattle that are unable to walk to safeguard consumers from mad cow disease, leading at least 29 such animals, including 20 high-risk "downers," to reach the food chain, according to a recent government audit report.
The failure angered some activist groups in the United States, blasting the U.S. Department of Agriculture for putting consumers at risk of the disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, despite a no-downer policy maintained for more than two years as a protective firewall against BSE.
"It turns out that USDA's supposed firewall has massive holes in it, and downer livestock are entering the food supply," said Wayner Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, a Washington-based animal protection group.
"This information reveals that American consumers are still at risk," he said.
According to the report released last week by the USDA inspector general, at least 29 head of cattle that could not walk were slaughtered for human consumption at two of the 12 plants audited between June 2004 and April 2005.
"Twenty of them were identified as downers with no documentation of any acute injury," the report said, noting that auditors "observed use of a forklift and a rail above the pens to transport non-ambulatory cattle to the slaughter area."
The report blamed it on "inconsistent USDA policies," citing a policy issued by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service allowing the slaughter of cattle that have become non-ambulatory due to an acute injury after pre-slaughter inspection.
The FSIS policy contradicts the USDA policy that "excludes all non-ambulatory disabled cattle from the human food supply, regardless of the reason for their non-ambulatory status or the time at which they became non-ambulatory," the report said.
The USDA rule was implemented after the United States discovered its first case of mad cow disease in December 2003.
After the auditors pointed out the case in which 26 cattle that were unable to walk were slaughtered at one of the two plants, the FSIS replied that it "is not remarkable for an establishment that slaughters 13,000 head per month," according to the report.
In the report, the inspector general urged the USDA to clarify its policy and the FSIS to develop controls to ensure the policy is consistently applied.
In the 117-page report including 11 other problems regarding the USDA's BSE safeguard programs, the inspector general also said the auditors were unable to determine whether slaughterhouses and meat packers complied with rules to remove specified risk materials, or SRMs, from cattle aged 30 months and older due to a lack of adequate records.
The report came at a time when Japan again banned U.S. beef imports on Jan. 20 after a spinal column, banned under a bilateral agreement as a SRM, was found in a veal shipment at Narita airport.
Given growing doubts about U.S. inspection measures in Japan as well as opposition to a resumption of the imports, mainly among consumer groups, the Japanese government is planning to send its inspectors to check U.S. beef processing facilities.
The discovery of the risk material shocked many Japanese consumers as it came only a month after Japan had lifted its two-year ban, which was imposed soon after the first U.S. case of mad cow disease.
The USDA has vowed to compile and submit a report on its investigation and preventive measures, while Japan has said it will not resume imports until Washington presents a convincing report.
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