New federal regulations for cattle processing went into effect Monday, but critics say the rules that still allow human consumption of cow brains don't go far enough.
The new beef rules, prompted by concern over mad cow disease, became official when the U.S. Department of Agriculture published them as interim regulations.
The rules include bans on air-injection stunning of cattle at slaughter and on "downer" cows for human food, and they tighten restrictions on stripping meat from the bone.
The USDA regulations would still allow grocers and restaurants to sell neural tissue from cows younger than 2 1/2 -years-old.
The rules published in the Federal Register do not address the number of cattle to be tested for mad cow disease. About 20,000 cattle were tested last year in the United States.
Some experts say cattle brains and spinal cords should be completely banned from the human food chain, regardless of the age of the animal.
"The new rules are a joke. This is nothing more than political posturing to try to convince our foreign trading partners to let us back in," said Ira Krull, a chemistry professor at Northeastern University in Boston and an expert on prions that cause mad cow disease. "It's not working."
Thirty-six countries, including leading U.S. beef importer Japan, have shut their doors to American beef after a Holstein in Washington state was discovered with mad cow disease in December.
The regulations, published by the Food Safety and Inspection Service division of the USDA, detail changes announced Dec. 28 by Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman. At the time, Veneman said that the rule changes were guided by "sound science."
The beef industry, which previously opposed increased regulation, hailed the new standards.
The 13 pages of rules published Monday spell out the rules: Meat inspectors will now ban from human consumption the eyes, brain, skull, trigeminal ganglia, spinal cord and vertebral column of cattle 30 months and older. Also banned are the small intestines and tonsils of all cattle, regardless of age, and so-called "downer cows" that cannot walk because of illness or injury.
Scientists believe that prions, rogue proteins thought responsible for mad cow disease and the human version, new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, reside in those cattle parts. The disease creates holes in the brain leading to dementia and death.
While the political battle rages, cow brains are off the menu at the Taqueria El Rodeo in Galt. Restaurant owner George Duenas said he would stop selling brains.
"I think it's something we'll stop selling for now until somebody says we can go ahead and sell the meat again," Duenas said.
Supporters of the new rules say that they are reasonable, given that the illness has an incubation period of 30 months in cattle.
Krull and other USDA critics, including U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., believe that testing -- which requires the death of the animal -- should be more widespread. They point to Japan and countries in Europe that test every cow before processing.
But most experts say such a policy is useless.
"Testing younger than 24 months doesn't make sense," said James Reagan, vice president for research for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "Testing any cattle younger than that would be like testing an 8-year-old for Alzheimer's."
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