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Meat Stripper Gets Third Degree

January 19, 2004 Wired Magazine By Kristen Philipkoski
Imagine an old-timey, hand-cranked clothes wringer. Now jack up that concept with lots of hydraulic pressure. Subtract the wet clothes and add a cow carcass.

That's the basic concept behind advanced meat recovery. The technology squeezes cow bones to force out any meat still clinging to them after the animal is slaughtered. It's a job once done less efficiently and more dangerously by laborers wielding automatic knives.

Advanced meat recovery systems squeeze cow bones to force out any meat still clinging to them after the animal is slaughtered. With advanced meat recovery, or AMR, bones are chopped into 6-inch pieces that fit into the hydraulic compression chamber (left). There, the chunks are pressed between two rotating cylinders (center). One cylinder squeezes meat through like a sieve, leaving the bone and connective tissues on the other side. The meat is finally fed through one last, finer filter to remove any remaining bone or cartilage (right). Meat recovered using this method is usually added to processed meat products like sausage, hot dogs or taco toppings. Some of BFD's advanced meat recovery machines can process several tons of lean meat and bones every hour.

With advanced meat recovery, or AMR, a human doesn't have to touch the bones except to stuff them into the machine, which chops them into six-inch pieces that fit into the hydraulic compression chamber. There, the chunks are pressed between two rotating cylinders. One cylinder squeezes meat through like a sieve, leaving the bone and connective tissues on the other side. The meat is fed through one last, finer filter to remove any remaining bone or cartilage.

Meat recovered using the advanced method is usually added to processed meat products like sausage, hot dogs or taco toppings.

Witnessing the AMR process would make any vegan or animal-rights advocate squirm. The yuck factor is high. But another question entirely is whether AMR could contribute to the spread of mad cow, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, the brain-wasting disease that devastated the beef industry in the United Kingdom in the 1990s.

Consumer-rights advocates have made that accusation since the technology was introduced in 1994. Some are making it again in the wake of the first discovery of mad cow in the United States on Dec. 23.

Groups like Organic Consumers and the Center for Science in the Public Interest have expressed concerns that tissue from the animal's central nervous system, which can transmit BSE, is filtered through the machine and makes its way into the food supply.

"(Meat processors) have shown over the past decade that they're incapable of following the guidelines set for them by the USDA, and I'm afraid that because we're not going to have adequate enforcement, it would be better to not have the technology at all," said Dr. Michael Greger, a vegan author, speaker and chief BSE investigator for Farm Sanctuary.

But Harold Hodges, a vice president and head of product quality and government relations for BFD, the leading advanced meat recovery machine retailer in the country, said the machines are being attacked unfairly. A food safetyissue has never been linked to AMR, he said, and no link can be drawn between BSE and advanced meat recovery.

"There's never been a recall due to AMR," Hodges said. "It's a source of high-quality lean meat that is worth several hundreds of millions of dollars."

Hodges estimates meat extracted using AMR to be worth between $400 million and $500 million annually. Banning the technology would cost the industry about $209 million the first year, and $137 million in subsequent years, according to a report (PDF) prepared by Sparks Companies, an agricultural market research firm.

Industry representatives say the technology performs a job that is dangerous for humans to do. Laborers who sawed meat from bones incurred hundreds of injuries every year, according to the Sparks report. Meat processors have also reconfigured their facilities to switch from manual to AMR technology, and would have to hire new labor if the technology were banned, which is what many consumer groups want.

After the isolated BSE-infected cow was found in the United States, the USDA strengthened its regulations for advanced meat recovery, adding, for example, dorsal root ganglia, a peripheral nerve tissue near the spinal cord, to the list of types of tissue not allowed to enter AMR machines when the cow is older than 30 months. The rules also say processors cannot insert vertebrae into the machine from cows that old.

The regulations have few defenders. Consumer groups don't think they go far enough, while the industry thinks they go too far.

"It seems to me ... the intent of all of these additional rules and directives is to try and eliminate a process that is safe and sound," Hodges said. "Cattlemen, the packer, processor and the retailer all eat the same meat. We want the safest meat in the world for our children, plain and simple."

Both sides contend the rules are arbitrary, and mainly designed to standardize regulations between the United States, Canada and Europe to insure exportation doesn't hit a snag.

The new rules may force meat processors who handle cows more than 30 months old to adjust their businesses. However, AMR will continue to squeeze meat from cattle bones, since most cows whose carcasses are fed into the machines were less than 30 months old.

Advanced meat recovery systems squeeze cow bones to force out any meat still clinging to them after the animal is slaughtered. With advanced meat recovery, or AMR, bones are chopped into 6-inch pieces that fit into the hydraulic compression chamber (left). There, the chunks are pressed between two rotating cylinders (center). One cylinder squeezes meat through like a sieve, leaving the bone and connective tissues on the other side. The meat is finally fed through one last, finer filter to remove any remaining bone or cartilage (right). Meat recovered using this method is usually added to processed meat products like sausage, hot dogs or taco toppings. Some of BFD's advanced meat recovery machines can process several tons of lean meat and bones every hour.

"The practical effect is not at all significant," said Dan Murphy, a spokesman for the American Meat Institute in Washington, D.C. "Because most of the beef that's recovered using AMR machines comes from beef cattle that are rarely if ever older than 22 or 24 months."

In 1997, federal agriculture officials found spinal cord tissue in meat processed using AMR, prompting consumer groups to lobby the government to ban it. But no case of BSE had ever been identified in the United States at that time, so officials weren't worried.

The meat industry says the amount of central nervous system matter that has made it into the food chain since advanced meat recovery was introduced in 1994 is small, and the chances of humans getting sick from it are even smaller.

The most common cause of BSE, researchers believe, is cannibalism: Until 1997, some cattle feed contained other cows' discarded material, such as intestine and brain. Because the incubation period for BSE and CJD are very long, new cases can emergemany years after an animal may have eaten its own kind and contracted BSE -- which seems to have been true in the Dec. 23 U.S. case. In addition, that cow was born in Canada, and officials suspect it may have contracted the diseasebefore being shipped to the United States.

Human cannibalistic tribes in New Guinea are still developing a human form of the disease, called Kuru, 50 years after the practice was banned. The BSE epidemic in the United Kingdom in the late 1980s, during which 36 million cows were infected, caused about 140 cases of another human form -- Creutzfeldt-Jakob, or CJD, which causes holes to form in the brain and leads to a rapid death -- in the mid-1990s.

"It's clearly the conclusion most scientists have come to that (contracting the disease requires) massive exposure, plus a certain genetic predisposition," said Murphy.

But others worry that more cases will emerge. Only one case of CJD has been identified in the United States as a result of eating a BSE-infected cow, and doctors believe she contracted it in Britain. Hundreds of older people come down with "sporadic" CJD every year, which looks slightly different from CJD linked to mad cow.

No one knows the cause of the sporadic disease, but Farm Sanctuary's Greger believes it might be linked to BSE-infected meat that sneaks into the food supply through AMR or other meat-processing practices.

Between 1979 and 1996, Greger said, only one case of sporadic CJD was found in someone under 30. But the rate increased significantly between 1997 and 2001: Five people under 30 died of the sporadic disease in those five years. He suspects this could be because the sporadic cases are actually linked to BSE-infected meat. He also cites evidence that some cases of CJD are misdiagnosed as Alzheimer's disease.

"That means, if you extrapolate, thousands of people could be dying of a sporadic form of CJD, and for all we know (these cases) may indeed be tied back to infected meat after all," Greger said.

   
         

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