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The U.S. government has banned the use of sick cows and is requiring speedier testing to detect diseased animals to keep beef parts that might carry mad cow disease out of the nation's food supply.
Faced with plummeting cattle prices and analysts' warnings of potentially long-term economic effects from the restrictions imposed by other countries, spokesmen for the beef industry said Tuesday that they generally supported the stricter rules. Consumer groups said the department should have acted years ago, instead of waiting for the first case to occur.
The new measures include an immediate ban on using downer cows, animals that cannot walk because of injury or illness, to provide meat for humans. In addition, carcasses singled out to be tested for mad cow disease will be kept until the test results come back, instead of being butchered and sent to market immediately, as they have been until now.
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman issued the orders at the same time that federal trade representatives were trying to persuade Japan, a major beef importer, and South Korea to lift their bans on American beef. More than 30 countries have stopped buying American beef since the discovery last week of the first case of mad cow disease in the United States.
Under the new protections, the Agriculture Department will also begin using a new identification system to track animals in the event of disease outbreaks. In addition, brains, skulls, spinal cords, vertebral columns, eyes and certain nerve tissues from cows over 30 months old, as well as the small intestine from all cows, will be banned from the food supply because they are most likely to harbor the agent that causes mad cow disease.
But brains from younger animals will still be considered fit for human consumption.
Other new rules, also meant to keep high-risk tissue out of meat products, will require changes in the use of machines that remove meat scraps from bone and will ban a practice called air-injection stunning in which air is blasted into an animal's skull to render it unconscious before slaughter.
At a news conference in Washington, Veneman said she was also appointing an international panel of scientific experts to review the new measures and recommend others if needed.
While we are confident that the United States has safeguards and fire walls needed to protect public health, these additional actions will further strengthen our protection systems, she said.
Dan Murphy, a spokesman for the American Meat Institute, which represents the nation's largest beef companies, said: This is a huge and dramatic and very positive step forward. It sends a message to consumers that they need not have any doubt in the safety of U.S. beef.
But in a statement, the organization said it believed the government had gone too far on some measures. In fact, the statement criticized the ban on downer cows and the extensive prohibition on certain cow parts, saying it went beyond what was necessary.
Murphy said federal agricultural officials had worked with industry officials and kept them informed of the proposals to make sure the meatpacking industry could institute the changes.
What they haven't done is lock themselves up in their Washington headquarters and write the rules without any sense of what's needed and what the impact will be on the industry, Murphy said.
Terry Stokes, chief executive officer of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said his group also supported the department's action. It was to enhance a safety system that we had in place, and just adds another layer of protection for our consumers, Stokes said.
But Caroline Smith DeWaal, a spokeswoman for a consumer group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said, The downer decision is a huge leap forward, but it's really too bad USDA waited to take this step and others until after the first case was found. These are changes that many scientists and consumer advocates have been calling for years.
Gene Bauston, president of Farm Sanctuary, a group in Watkins Glen, New York, that has been petitioning the Agriculture Department since 1998 to stop allowing downers to be used as food, said: We're hopeful that this is an outright ban on slaughtering downers. There has been some discrepancy in the past about what exactly is a downed animal. There's been a tendency to say that if an animal is just injured it's not a downed animal.
The decision to ban downer cows is based on the possibility that an animal unable to walk may have mad cow disease. That may be true even if an animal appears only to be injured, because it may have hurt itself through lack of coordination a sign of the disease.
Anahad O'Connor and Donald G. McNeil Jr. contributed reporting for this article.
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