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USDA to inspect ground meat for bone marrow, spinal cord


Consumers groups pleased, but want results

February 21, 1997
Web posted at: 9:40 p.m. EST

From Correspondent Eugenia Halsey

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Consumer groups have complained for several years that ground beef, sausage and hot dogs contain bone marrow, and sometimes even bits of spinal cord.

They say that the meat in animals necks and other hard-to- reach places is removed from the bone by machine, which is not as precise as when it is done by hand. Thus, there is a greater likelihood that pieces of bone marrow and spinal cord will find their way into meat that has been processed by boning machines.

It is estimated that such machines produce 400 million pounds of ground meat a year that is then mixed in with other ground meat.

A recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) confirms consumers' complaints. It found that there was, on average, 20 times more bone marrow in meat separated by machine than in meat removed by hand.

It also found other problems in the process known as "advanced meat recovery."


"Some advanced meat recovery systems samples contain spinal cord," says Margaret Glavin of the USDA. "Spinal cord is not an expected component of meat."

Agriculture department officials insist meat is safe. Still, they are going to tell inspectors to make sure no spinal cord goes into the machines, and it is considering using chemical tests to confirm it. And for good reason.

Consumer pleased, but want to see the results


The "mad cow" disease that has troubled Britain and Europe has never been detected in cows in the United States. But if a cow did get sick, the deadly brain disease could spread through the spinal cord tissue and infect anyone who ate it.

"We're constantly aware that this could be a problem," says Kay Wachsmuth of the USDA, "and we are watching both the animal and human side of things."

Consumer groups say they're pleased the government is taking another look at the matter, but will wait and see whether it actually results in less bone marrow in meat.


"This doesn't meet the legal definition of meat, and there's a potential problem in relation to spinal cord," says Robert Hahn of Public Voice.

"The meat industry has repeated often that 'consumer confidence is our chief concern.' Therefore, if USDA identifies new procedures to improve a product, we will give the agency our full support."

You can't tell by looking at the label whether meat has been mechanically separated from the bone, and the USDA has no plans to change that. But two fast food giants-- McDonald's and Burger King-- say they don't use such meat.


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