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Saturday, December 27, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Q & A: Most agree muscle meat, such as steak, safe to eat

Seattle Times staff reporter

Most experts say the risk of contracting the human form of mad-cow disease from American beef is virtually nonexistent. Yet many questions remain. Here are some of them, and some answers:

Q: Are some cuts of beef safer to eat than others?

A: Most experts, including those from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), agree that the malformed protein that causes mad-cow disease occurs only in the brains and spinal cords of cattle, not in muscle meats, such as steak, roasts or tongue, which, they say, makes muscle meats safe to eat.

However, there's disagreement on this. Some consumer groups say it's possible that diseased tissue from the spinal cord could enter muscle meat during slaughter and processing, especially when high-pressure machinery is used to remove meat from bone.

A USDA directive approved in March prohibits sale of spinal tissue from cows, and tests are required to make sure such tissue doesn't get into muscle meat. However, U.S. government studies show this sometimes occurs.

As a result, some food-safety advocates contend certain beef cuts are safer from mad-cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE, than others.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer-advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., has for some time advised Americans traveling in countries where BSE has been identified, such as Great Britain, to avoid certain beef cuts and products.

The center's Web site recommends, for example, avoiding processed meats such as hamburger, hot dogs and sausage in BSE countries. The center also contends that bone-in cuts such as T-bone, porterhouse and rib steak may contain tiny nerves that could be infectious if the meat comes from a cow with BSE. If you're concerned, advises CSPI, choose boneless steaks, roasts and other whole cuts.

The USDA makes no such recommendation and says all muscle meats are safe.

Virtually all experts agree that even in European countries where most of the known BSE cases have occurred, your chances of contracting the human form of the disease are extremely low.

In the United States, only one person has ever been identified with the disease, and it is believed she contracted it in Europe.

Q: If cattle brains are a source of BSE, are they still sold as food?

A: The government allows the sale of beef brain for food, even though it and the spinal cord are widely believed to be the only parts of cattle where BSE disease occurs and the only parts that could transmit the disease to people who eat them.

However, the USDA does not consider the spinal cord food and prohibits it from being sold as food or included in meat products.

Why the difference?

"Brain has been an accepted commodity for decades, if not centuries," whereas people do not think of the spinal cord as food, said USDA spokesman Daniel Puzo.

The law requires brain to be labeled as such, whether sold alone or as part of another product.

"You know that you're taking a risk," Puzo said.

However, Rosemary Mucklow, executive director of the National Meat Association, said she knows of no one who is selling brain, outside of the rare restaurant. (One such restaurant, in Missoula, Mont., was featured in a Seattle Times story Thursday.)

"I haven't known anybody who's sold brain for quite some time," Mucklow said.

She said ethnic markets would be the most likely to carry brain-containing products, such as sausage.

Q: Is milk safe to drink?

A: The USDA says there's no evidence that people can contract the human form of BSE by drinking milk from cows that have the disease.

Q: Is it safer to eat only organically raised beef?

A: Some advocates of organically grown beef contend such meat is safer from BSE than conventionally raised beef, but state officials say there should be no safety difference.

Both federal law and organic rules prohibit giving feed containing cattle byproducts to cows as protein. Such feed is believed to be the source of BSE in cattle.

The organic rules are broader than the federal law, prohibiting cattle feed that contains byproducts of all mammals and poultry, while the federal law prohibits only byproducts of most mammals. The more sweeping organic rules help keep cattle byproducts out of cattle feed, proponents contend.

However, Ali Kashami, who heads Washington state's feed-compliance program and enforces the federal feed rules for conventionally grown beef, sees the two systems as equally protective.

"Both programs have strong inspection (systems)," said Kashami, a former president of the American Feed Control Officials and a nationally recognized expert in the field.

He said his inspection team has not found any of the federally prohibited mammalian byproducts in cattle feed produced in Washington, though they have found "minor violations" in record-keeping.

Federal records also show at least one company in Washington has been cited for sanitation violations that could have allowed cattle feed to be contaminated with cattle tissue.

Kashami said there are 20 to 24 cattle-feed producers in the state, all inspected at least once a year, more often in some cases.

Miles McEvoy, who manages the state's organic program, said his inspectors also have found no prohibited animal products in cattle feed.

Both officials noted that Washington cattle also receive feed from other states or countries.

But, given the feed-inspection programs here, in other states and at U.S. borders, Kashami said the discovery of BSE in a Washington cow was "an extreme surprise to me."

Judith Blake: jblake@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2349

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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