Technology picks bones, may spread mad cow

Technology picks bones, may spread mad cow

August 7, 2001 Sun Herald by Lance Gay

WASHINGTON - Machines that extract the last bits of meat from animal bones are extracting "non-meat" from the central nervous system that could transfer diseases to humans, according to a consumer group.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest says it is filing a petition with the U.S. Agriculture Department this week to ban animal backbones and neck bones from being put through "advanced meat recovery" machines in order to keep central nervous tissues out of food served in the school-lunch program.

The European Union this year adopted a ban on all mechanically separated meat after British scientists found that the technology could have helped spread a brain-wasting disease in humans linked to mad cow disease.

In the United States, advanced meat recovery produces an estimated 45 million pounds of beef and 141 million pounds of pork each year, worth from $100 million to $150 million. The Agriculture Department says hot dogs and sausages can contain up to 20 percent of mechanically separated meat, and it is used in other products like hamburgers, luncheon meats and canned meats.

Worker safety an issue

The American Meat Institute, representing the meat and poultry trade, said a ban is not needed because a 1997 federal rule requires that the spinal cord be removed from a carcass before it is butchered. The institute also noted that there has not been a single case of mad cow disease reported in the United States.

"We think it's unnecessary," said Janet Riley, the institute's vice president of public relations.

She said a ban on the machines would require butchers to remove the meat with knives - the traditional method for removing hard-to-locate meat in backbones and neck bones - which can be hazardous to workers.

One of the first advanced methods involved high-pressure water hoses to wash the meat off bones, which sometimes caused them to break. Newer techniques use mechanical belts and drums to "rub" the meat off bones, leaving bones intact.

Although the department classifies the tissues as being "not meat," their presence in a meat product is not a violation of food safety laws. Much of the mechanically separated meat is sold to the school-lunch program, which the department also administers.

About 50 percent of meat recovered by mechanical separators comes from neck and spine bones, the American Meat Institute said. There is no special labeling requirement for meat extracted using this method.

Tests support activists

Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said new restrictions on the use of mechanical separation are needed to protect consumers if the European outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, spreads to the United States.

"We believe the horrifying human illness justifies that additional precaution," she said.

DeWaal said that in spite of 1997 government regulations requiring the removal of the spinal cord, the government's own tests show that central nervous system tissues are removed by mechanical separation machines along with the meat.

Two of almost 60 tests the Agriculture Department conducted on mechanically separated meat were positive for such tissues, she said.

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