Beef banned under mad cow (search) disease rules was shipped to wholesalers in a half-dozen states and is now being recalled by a Wisconsin beef plant.
The 1,856 pounds of beef included meat from a Canadian cow that inspectors in Canada determined was eligible for shipment to the United States. A Canadian audit two weeks later found, however that the cow was too old to be allowed entry to the U.S.
"There is a minimal chance, given the age of the animal and the health of the animal, that there was any risk whatsoever" to people, Steven Cohen, spokesman for the Agriculture Department's (search) Food Safety and Inspection Service, said Monday.
The U.S. restricts shipments to younger animals because infection levels from mad cow disease are believed to rise with age. The cutoff is 30 months of age.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (search) is investigating and has suspended the veterinarian who certified the cow, said Francine Lord, import-export manager for the agency's animal health division. She said the agency finished its audit last week and notified U.S. officials Thursday. The Agriculture Department said Canadian officials verified the cow's age on Friday.
The cow in question was 31 months old. Two other Canadian cows less than 30 months old were processed with the older cow, and USDA recalled meat from all three animals as a precaution.
Green Bay Dressed Beef of Green Bay, Wis., processed the cow on Aug. 4 and distributed the meat to wholesalers in Pennsylvania, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The department and the company are trying to find out how much beef wound up in retail stores, Cohen said.
The department issued code numbers for recalled cases of beef sent to distributors, but it was unknown whether beef that reached the retail level would have carried the same numbers.
Consumer groups have criticized the government for not revealing the names of retail stores involved in food recalls.
"When it comes to a case like this, the retailer is never disclosed — how are you ever going to know whether your chuck roast was involved in this recall or not?" asked Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union. "The consumer has absolutely no way of knowing."
The recall is for cuts of meat that could contain backbone because the cow's backbone was not removed. Those cuts include neck bone, short loin and bone-in chuck.
The U.S. requires the removal of backbone and nerve parts — which can carry mad cow disease — when older cows are slaughtered. The at-risk tissues are removed from cows older than 30 months.
U.S. and Canadian officials said the cow in question wasn't the only problem in a shipment of 35 cows from Ontario: Also in that shipment were eight pregnant cows, which the U.S. also prohibits. The cows were processed for distribution but their calves were destroyed, the Agriculture Department said.
Those cows are part of the Canadian investigation, Lord said.
The U.S. closed its borders to Canadian cattle in May 2003, when Canada discovered its first case of mad cow disease. The government allowed Canadian imports to resume last July after a court battle with a group of western ranchers suing to keep the border closed.
Canada subsequently found two more cases of mad cow disease. The U.S. also found two cases, one in a cow that had been imported from Canada.
Since the border reopened, 40,390 Canadian cows have crossed the border.
Mad cow disease is the common name for a brain-wasting ailment called bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE. In humans, eating meat contaminated with BSE has been linked to about 150 deaths from a rare but fatal degenerative disease called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.