U.S. may have imported banned beef

February 7, 2002 Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO) by Lou Kilzer
The United States apparently imported more than 200,000 pounds of beef last year from countries banned from selling meat products here because of their association with "mad cow disease," according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures.

But Dale Leuck, a member of the USDA's Economic Research Service, said it is too early to tell if the figures represent true imports, or are simply miscoding by Customs officials.

"I think we'd prefer not to take them at face value," he said. "We don't know for sure if it is really beef." "Of most concern," Leuck acknowledged, are records indicating the imports of 2,156 pounds of "meat and edible meat offal" from the United Kingdom and 970 pounds from Spain.

Offal contains brain tissue and poses the greatest risk of infecting humans with "mad cow disease," scientifically known as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy or BSE. Most scientists believe BSE is caused by a mutant form of a naturally occurring protein called a prion that resides mostly in brain and neural tissues.

Representatives of R-CALF, a Montana-based U.S. cattleman's lobbying group that sought the records, called for a full investigation of the apparent import of banned products.

"If this is anywhere near accurate, we're taking an enormous risk," said R-CALF vice president Kathleen Kelley, a rancher from Meeker, who spoke in Denver on the issue Wednesday.

Leuck gave the Kelley's group two spreadsheets earlier this week with some overlapping data. One sheet considers "Total Beef and Veal Imports," the other with more specific categories. The overall number of imports is higher on the more specific sheet.

For example, under the category "Mixtures of Pork and Beef, Prepared or Preserved," the Netherlands is reported as exporting 349,000 pounds to the U.S. The Netherlands is a "mad cow" infected country, from which beef imports are banned.

An epidemic swept through Great Britain in the early 1990s before jumping to other European countries and most recently to Japan. Over 180,000 British cattle contracted the disease and to contain it, 4.5 million were killed.

To date, 121 people have contracted the always-fatal brain-wasting disease from eating infected beef. Of that number, 113 were in the UK, including the first case reported among humans in 1996. Most beef products from Europe have been banned here.

The disease is part of a class of prion diseases called Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies, or TSE. A TSE in wild deer and elk called Chronic Wasting Disease is endemic in northeastern Colorado, southwestern Wyoming and the Nebraska panhandle.

Though scientists have fingered the prion as the cause of TSEs, exactly how the disease works remains largely unknown.

Leuck said there would be an investigation to determine if potentially tainted beef is making it past the USDA ban.

He said that a couple of years ago a batch of meat was listed as coming from the United Kingdom. On further inspection, it had merely passed through that country.

He explained that similar issues might effect the current list.

The lists show exports from BSE states during each month in 2001. In addition to the UK, Spain, and the Netherlands, countries on the list include France, Germany, Austria, Poland, Switzerland, Italy and Croatia.

Dr. Milo Mueller, an USDA agent in Albuquerque, said Wednesday his office was contacted by Bill Bullard, the CEO of R-Calf. He promised USDA would find out if its figures on the banned imports are true.

NOTES: Contact Lou Kilzer at (303) 892-2644 or kilzerl@RockyMountainNews.com

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