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No-Brainer

Our meat supply still contains a jungle of weird stuff. Spinal cord, anyone?

By Steve Bjerklie

NINETY-ONE years ago, journalist Upton Sinclair caused a sensation when he reported, in his muckraking novel The Jungle, that meatpackers in Chicago routinely added rats, dung, nails, borax, tubercular spittle, and human fingers to meat products. Now the government admits that other items not generally considered meat--namely, spinal cord and bone marrow--have been part of the meat supply for years. A field inspector described the meat product processed by advanced meat recovery (AMR) machinery as "blood, bone marrow, and muscle gumbo."

But new research indicates that bits of brain might also be ground up in meat that's used as pet food. You think mad cows might be a problem? Try mad cats. That's at least one documented result of serving brains infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy--BSE, or "mad cow disease"--to kitty in the form of cooked cat food. Mad cats, in fact, have been a problem in the United Kingdom for several years.

The government's reaction to its own data? "We do not have any public health concerns," stated Thomas Billy, administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service, at a press briefing last week, even though consumption of nerve tissue such as spinal cord and brain is thought to be the primary way human beings contract an always fatal variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease from BSE-infected cattle.

A year ago, the British government finally admitted what it had heretofore denied: 10 human deaths so far in Great Britain are attributable to nerve tissue consumption. The ensuing furor almost destroyed the British beef industry. Billy was quick to point out that no mad cows have ever been found in the United States, and the importation of cattle from Great Britain was banned in 1989, but recently the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, following Britain's lead and hoping to negate the chief way BSE spreads in livestock, proposed a ban on ruminant-to-ruminant feeds.

One consumer spokesperson suggested that the government, which seemed to miss The Jungle's primary aim of eliminating horrid working conditions in meat plants, is quite concerned if one cow eats the nerve tissue of another, but now shows only a mild worry if that same nerve tissue winds up on the dinner plates or in the baby food of human beings.

A study conducted by the FSIS found that 58 percent of samples of deboned beef contained marrow and spinal cord, a violation of federal inspection regulations. All of the samples had been deboned on AMR equipment, which forces recoverable meat off of bones by high pressure. The technology has been used widely over the past five years, though last year England and France both banned AMR systems owing to similar findings of marrow and spinal cord.

Billy said at the briefing that he does not know how many U.S. plants use the technology; estimates ranges as high as 75 percent of high-volume beef slaughterhouses processing carcass bones through AMR systems. The resulting deboned meat--or "gumbo," if you will--is used as an ingredient in sausages, baby food, and some fast-food hamburgers (at least two fast-food chains, McDonald's and Burger King, specify they will not accept AMR meat).

Despite Billy's lack of public-health concerns, his agency will quickly institute new visual-inspection procedures to limit marrow and spinal cord from entering the food supply, but will stop short of banning the automatic deboning of neck bones and vertebrae, the sources of spinal cord.

Meanwhile, Dr. Nathan Bauer and his colleagues at Texas A&M University published an abstract last September in The Journal of Veterinary Pathology reporting the bad news on brains: namely, that in a random testing of some 220 lungs of slaughtered cows, seven contained "macroscopically visible pieces of brain tissue," grey matter that might carry BSE. In other words, brain bits can lead to mad cats. And maybe mad humans, too.

The cattle's brains get into their lungs from the method by which all cattle are slaughtered in all U.S. beef packing plants: Each animal is "stunned" by means of a bolt of air shot into the brain; moments later the throat of the comatose cow, bull, or steer is slit and the animal dies by loss of blood (which the Humane Slaughter Act deems the safest, most humane, and microbiologically cleanest way to kill a large animal).

Dr. Bauer's research shows that in the few seconds between stunning and bleeding, pieces of the brain, which is often splattered inside the skull by the "stun gun," can enter the bloodstream and work their way into the organs. While the problem may be localized to pet food--cattle lungs are not considered by the USDA to be fit for human consumption (though they are eaten in other parts of the world, including Europe)--mad cats and dogs in the house are no picnic.

And though there is yet no proof of it, Bauer's research suggests that close human contact with mad pets might also prove to be a vector for transfer of spongiform diseases.

All of this leaves consumer organizations wary and angry. They've complained about mechanically deboned meat and AMR-processed products for years, claiming that bone particles and marrow are present in deboned meat without any label notification to consumers. But the discovery of bits of spinal cord in AMR meat and pieces of brain in organ meat destined for pet food brings up the very real, very deadly specter of BSE.

"At a minimum, this is a truth-in-labeling issue," comments Robert Hahn, director of legal affairs for Public Voice for Food & Health Policy, a major consumer-lobbying group. "Consumers do not want to unwittingly eat bone marrow and spinal cord in their ground beef. And with regard to spinal tissue, we believe there is also a potential health issue." He adds, "As far as we know, BSE does not exist in U.S. cattle. Still, because there are no guarantees, we believe the only prudent course is to exclude cow brain and spinal cord from the food supply."

Prudent.

Definitely a no-brainer.

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From the February 27-March 5, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent

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