WASHINGTON (FNS) -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture has sent an edict to its inspectors at meat processing plants that no spinal cord or bone tissue is to be allowed in ground beef. This follows a wave of criticism over automatic machines designed to get more meat off a carcass.
USDA officials look at the issue as one involving truth-in-labeling: Ground beef simply shouldn't contain ground bone, they say.
Consumer groups argue the automatic process raises the specter of Mad Cow disease -- if it were present in the United States -- making its way into the food supply via crushed spinal cord matter.
Other beef-safety watchers are concerned about the presence of crushed bone marrow in ground meat, primarily due to the cholesterol it adds to the product. A USDA review of the bone marrow issue is already under way.
After the USDA released data on spinal cord matter being present in ground beef, the American Meat Institute, Arlington, Va., called on the agency to undertake a thorough review of the deboning machines.
"We are continuously improving the safety and integrity of meat products, and consumer confidence is our chief concern," said AMI president J. Patrick Boyle. "If USDA identifies scientifically justified new procedures that will improve a technology or product, we will give the agency our full support."
A USDA survey of 15 ground beef samples processed by the so-called advanced meat recovery systems found two of the samples containing spinal cord matter. Another four samples were suspected of containing spinal cord matter, pending further tests. Seven samples of meat deboned by hand carried no trace of spinal cord.
"We expect meat product to be muscle," a USDA spokeswoman said, adding the presence of spinal cord in ground meat isn't a public health concern, because there's never been a trace of Mad Cow disease in the United States.
The fatal Mad Cow disease, which has been a problem in Great Britain's cattle, can be spread to other animals via ground spinal cords and tissues found in feed. There is speculation humans could catch the disease by eating beef containing nervous system matter as well.
Bob Hahn, director of food safety at Public Voice for Food and Health Care policy, called the USDA's no-spinal-cord edict a good first step, although he questions whether a mere visual inspection can detect whether cords are being entirely separated from the meat.
"We characterize this as a potential health hazard. As far as we know there is no Mad Cow disease in this country. However, I think it would be prudent to keep spinal tissue out of the food supply," Hahn said.
The latest controversy regarding the automatic deboning machines follows a USDA ruling in January 1995 allowing products produced by the technology to be labeled as "meat" as long as they do not contain more than 0.15% calcium. The standard allows for trace amounts of bone, although it specifies that bones shouldn't be ground or pulverized by the machines.