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U.S. Reasserts Safety of Its Beef

Posted May. 06, 2008 05:48,   


Richard Raymond, under secretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), held a news conference on the safety of the U.S. beef supply on Sunday in Washington with Korean correspondents.

Raymond, who practiced medicine for 17 years, asserted that the supply of American beef is among the safest in the world, elaborating on preventative measures that the United States has developed against mad cow disease, scientifically known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), since the discovery of the first case of BSE in Britain in 1986.

“The single most important thing we can do to protect human health regarding BSE is the removal from the food supply of specified risk materials (SRMs),” Raymond said. “According to the 2005 Harvard Risk Assessment, SRM removal alone reduces the potential exposure to consumers of BSE by 99 percent.”

Raymond said that slaughter facilities cannot carry out their slaughter operations without the continuous presence of the USDA inspection personnel and that the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) under the department employs over 9,000 personnel, including 7,800 full-time in-plant and other front-line personnel to constantly monitor slaughter operations.

The under secretary explained that the USDA, which conducted targeted BSE surveillance testing on 20,000 cattle to be slaughtered, has strengthened its surveillance effort since June 2004 by increasing the number of cattle subject to testing to 1,000 per day. He said that some 700,000 cattle were tested over the past two years.

Raymond said that, out of over 759,000 animals tested, only two additional cattle have been detected with BSE since the discovery of the first BSE case in the United States in 1993, and both of them were born prior to initiation of the ban on ruminant feed in August 1997.

He reiterated, “Because of the previously explained interlocking safeguards against BSE exposure, it is extremely unlikely that these meat products pose a risk to human health.”

He also played down the risk of variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease (vCJD), which is known as a human version of mad cow disease.

"We`ve never had a person in the United States be diagnosed with vCJD for eating American beef. So if it`s zero and chances are double (because Koreans are genetically more vulnerable), double zero is still zero," said Raymond.

On a recent suspected case of vCJD, Raymond cited preliminary results from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that the autopsy indicates the patient did not die of that disease. “The epidemiologic characteristics of the illness and preliminary results of the neuropathologic testing of brain tissue obtained at autopsy indicate that the patient did not die of vCJD,” he said. “An official release will be out once all testing is completed.”

Raymond also underlined that the new beef import agreement amply guarantees Korea`s sovereign right to inspect U.S. beef.

"The U.S. government believes the current agreement well addresses the health and food safety concerns of Korean consumers. It provides for Korea`s sovereign right to conduct an audit of our facilities and to work with USDA inspection authorities if any food safety concerns are identified,” he said.

The U.S. official also added that, if any food safety concern is found, the Korean government is welcome to come to the United States and carry out an audit that they believe is appropriate.

On the possibility of renegotiating the beef deal, Raymond repeatedly refused to answer, saying that he is just an expert in food safety. "I am not here to discuss negotiations. I am not a negotiator," he said.

The following is an excerpt from a Q&A session.

Q: If BSE is found, will Korean officials be allowed to the United States for an inspection?

A: The Korean government is welcome to come to the United States and do an audit as they see fit, when they see fit. But I think the word “inspection” is inappropriate.

Q: If BSE is found, can Seoul demand the responsible slaughter facility to stop exporting beef to Korea?

A: Remember, the slaughter establishment is not the cause of BSE. Thus, even if BSE is found, it would be "inappropriate" to take action against the slaughter facility where it was discovered. I don`t know what was negotiated in Korea. The operation of slaughter facilities was banned when materials like a bone fragment or bone marrow was found if you look at the past policies. However, I hope that (Korea) will not impose an immediate ban on U.S. beef imports even if the fourth cattle with BSE is discovered in the United States tomorrow. It is because that the removal of SRM is what guarantees the safety of beef supply.

Q: Could you answer to the claim that Koreans are genetically more vulnerable to BSE?

A: That`s a study I believe that deserves international examination as it goes beyond my level of training. However, I believe that if SRM is removed, there is no worry what the genetics are.