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For Some, Mad Cow Disease All in a Day's Work

Researchers at the Center for Red Meat Safety developed a test to check beef for material linked to the deadly illness.

January 04, 2004|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

FORT COLLINS, Colo. — While many Americans are just learning about mad cow disease, scientists here at the Center for Red Meat Safety have spent years getting to know it.

The center, part of Colorado State University, is one of a handful of research facilities in the nation dedicated solely to meat.

In room after room at the center, scientists and students work on new methods to kill bacteria while studying the properties of beef, lamb and pork. Cattle carcasses hang in freezers, while cow tissue and bovine bodily fluids rest in test tubes.

After mad cow disease was found in Britain, scientists at the meat center developed a test that detected bits of brain and spinal cord in beef. These parts of the cow harbor the disease. About 15 meatpacking plants in the United States are already using the technology while the center continues to streamline the system.

Kim Hossner, a biochemist, displayed dozens of vials of cow tissue being examined at the center. The test can find a half-billionth gram of brain or spinal tissue.

"If we can detect it, it's unacceptable," he said.

Excel Corp., one the nation's largest meatpackers, has been using the tissue test since 2001.

The Wichita, Kan.-based business, with a branch in Fort Morgan, Colo., said it has proved enormously effective.

"The mad cow incidents in the United Kingdom started us down the path," said Dell Allen, vice president for technical services at Excel. "We now have labs in all of our facilities where we test all the tissue."

Allen said that in 1996 the spinal cord and brain were removed from cows before they were butchered and meat was visually checked for signs of residue.

"This has improved our process; it helps assure there is no central nervous system in the product," he said. "If we find any, we condemn it."

The company, which handles cows, turkeys and pigs, has also been testing for E. coli since 1991.

"I think the meat is safe," he said. "I just went down to the cafeteria and had a hamburger. I don't hesitate to eat it, and when my grandchild is born in a few weeks, I wouldn't worry about letting him eat it either."

Researchers at the center say American meat is probably the safest in the world, with Japanese meat a close second.

"There is no such thing as zero risk," said Keith Belk, associate professor of meat science at the university. "But we are as close as it gets."

Belk, who has worked and lectured on meat safety issues at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and in 65 countries, praised the way the government handled the discovery last week of the disease that was detected in a cow from a herd in Washington state. The infected cow was later determined to have come into the United States from Canada.

On Tuesday, Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman announced a series of reforms to protect the nation from the disease. Cattle too sick or injured to walk will no longer enter the food supply, and a national identification system is aimed at making it easier to track cattle from birth to slaughter.

Some critics say the USDA should have acted more aggressively when mad cow disease was first detected in Britain in the 1980s. The disease eventually killed 143 people there and nearly destroyed the nation's beef industry.

Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, creates holes in the brain and kills cows in about four to six years. In humans, it can incubate for 15 years and mimics Alzheimer's disease. It is always fatal.

The government's new safety rules limit the use of brains and spinal cords in food products and stop the killing of cows with air-powered stun guns. The guns can splatter brain tissue throughout the animal.

All the talk of eyes, brains, spines and nerves is a reminder that the American meatpacking business isn't pretty.

In 1906, Upton Sinclair wrote "The Jungle," a book detailing the stomach-churning practices of the slaughterhouse business that led to widespread reforms.

In 1993, an outbreak of E. coli bacteria in hamburger killed four children, sickened 128 others and revived concern about how meatpackers operate.

In response, researchers at the Colorado red meat center devised a system designed to keep bacteria out of the meat supply. Those precautions are now used by meatpackers nationwide.

According to Belk, when a cow carcass comes into a processing plant it is steam vacuumed, washed with lactic acid, sprayed with 180-degree water, steamed again, chilled rapidly then doused in an acid to kill whatever bacteria may have survived the earlier assaults.

But things get dicey with hamburger.

"With hamburger you change a muscle to ground beef, exposing a wide surface area to contamination," said John Scanga, an assistant professor at the center.

He said there is little risk in eating steaks and chops from a cow and only a slight risk with ground beef, where parts of the brain could get into the mix.

The center has a scaled-down slaughterhouse floor where cows can be turned into assorted cuts of beef as researchers watch for ways to make the system safer.

Down the hall, Joe Monfre, a research associate, was working with cultures of listeria, a bacteria sometimes found on lunch meat, hot dogs and sausage that can cause pregnant women to miscarry and illness in those with compromised immune systems.

"We are testing various sanitizers on it to see which are most effective," he said.

The university benefits from being near two of the largest meat processors in the world -- Swift & Co. in nearby Greeley and Excel, which work closely with the center.

"What you are seeing here is the start of an idea," Belk said. "If it works, we take it to a plant and then see if it works in the real world."

Belk thinks interest in mad cow disease will remain high, while risk of human infection from American beef remains low.

"The risk now is infinitesimal," he said.

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