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For Meat Lovers, Facts and a Few Pointers

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Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman said she plans to sit down to a beef dinner today.

But should you join her?

"It depends how much you like beef and how risk-averse you are," said Jean Halloran, director of the Consumers Union Consumer Policy Institute.

Although Veneman and other government officials insist the nation's meat supply is safe, consumer groups say there are ways to minimize your exposure to potentially tainted beef.

The most risky parts of the cow are the brain and spinal tissue, which contain the highest concentration of the prions that cause mad cow disease.

Whole-muscle cuts, such as filet mignon or roasts, are considered least likely to carry infectious material. Mad cow disease has not been found in beef muscle or dairy products. However, recent studies in mice have found evidence of prions in muscle meat.

Experts suggest avoiding meat that's cut close to the bone, such as T-bone steaks or ribs, which can have traces of spinal cord tissue.

Consumer groups also suggest avoiding processed beef products such as hamburger, hot dogs, sausage and pizza toppings, which are made from several sources of meat. Although the federal government bans brain and spinal cord tissue in all meat, a 2002 Agriculture Department survey found central nervous system tissue in beef products at 74 percent of the plants tested.

If you must have hamburger, have a whole cut of meat ground up, Halloran said. Prepackaged ground beef and hamburger can contain different parts of beef from many different cows.

Federal officials suspect the Washington cow got the disease from feed made from an infected cow. Since 1997, the government has banned cattle and other animal byproducts from cow feed.

But consumer groups say enforcement has been lax and there are loopholes that can allow contamination of the cow's food supply.

For that reason, organic or grass-fed cows, which eat an all-vegetarian diet, could be a safer option.

Cooking and freezing does not kill mad cow disease. Not enough is known yet about the dairy cow in Yakima County identified as the probable first case of mad cow disease in the United States to make a fail-safe choice, Halloran said.

"We have no idea whether it was just one animal and where it might be in the distribution chain," she said. "We're really calling on USDA to have a massive testing program to test every animal at slaughter for period of a year until we know how big or small the problem is."

In Britain, where about 185,000 cases of the disease have been confirmed in cattle, fewer than 150 people have died.

And with only one diseased cow discovered in the United States out of the more than 20,000 tested last year, a meat eater's chances of contracting the incurable malady are minimal, said Jan Busboom, a professor of meat science at Washington State University.

U.S. standards have improved only since the outbreak in Europe, making new infections that much more unlikely, Busboom said.

"I'm quite comfortable consuming ground beef," he added.

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