AnalysisUSDA faulted for lax implementation of mad cow disease safety regulations

Published 10 February 2006

The USDA has a division in charge of ensuring food supply safety; the USDA inspector general does not think they do a very good job, and the Japanese, who imposed a U.S. beef importation ban, agree, insisting on sending their own inspectors to monitor U.S. slaughterhouses

The rules are straightforward: Cattle which are unable to walk are banned from being processed for food owing to suspicion of mad cow disease. The problem: U.S. beef inspectors have failed to comply with this rule, leading at least twenty-nine such animals, including twenty high-risk “downers,” to reach the food chain, according to a recent government audit report. Critics and government auditors alike criticize the Department of Agriculture (USDA) for such lapses — especially in light of the fact that the no-downer policy has been in effect for more than two years.

According to the report released last week by the USDA inspector general, at least twenty-nine head of cattle that could not walk were slaughtered for human consumption at two of the twelve plants audited between June 2004 and April 2005. “Twenty of them were identified as downers with no documentation of any acute injury,” the USDA IG 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 Food Safety and Inspection Service (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 IG report said.

The FSIS, despite the presence of the word “Safety” in its name, has been criticized for catering more to interests of large cattle growers than it attends to consumer safety, and its response to the IG report should give us pause. After the auditors pointed out the case in which twenty-six cattle which were unable to walk were slaughtered at one of the two plants, the FSIS blithely replied that it “is not remarkable for an establishment that slaughters 13,000 head per month,” according to