Probe: USDA Allowed Import of Dubious Meat

The Agriculture Department allowed Canada to import 42,000 pounds of questionable meat into the United States despite restrictions in place since the discovery of mad cow (search) disease in Canada, department investigators said Wednesday.

The investigation resulted from a federal judge's ruling last April preventing the department from expanding Canadian beef imports.

The agency's inspector general faulted agriculture officials for allowing more kinds of Canadian meat products into the United States before the judge's ruling. Such "permit creep" let in products that were at greater risk for the disease, the report said.

"There was reduced assurance that Canadian beef entering the United States was low-risk," the inspector general found. "Some product with questionable eligibility, as described above, entered U.S. commerce."

Agriculture officials are planning to allow imports of live cattle under 30 months of age beginning March 7, despite the discovery of two new cases of mad cow disease last month.

Mad cow disease, the common name for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (search), is thought to pose less of a risk to younger animals. A form of BSE, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, can infect humans who eat contaminated meat.

The cattlemen's group that won last year's ruling said the report bolstered its case. The group is suing again to block the expansion of trade with Canada.

"Those issues need to be completely resolved and corrected before the United States takes the leap of exposing the U.S. cattle industry to products from a country where BSE is known to exist," said Bill Bullard, chief executive officer of R-CALF United Stockgrowers of America (search).

"We simply do not know how widespread the disease is in Canada yet," Bullard said.

Agriculture officials said that problems cited in the report have been or are being fixed.

"That's what we're going to do, is strengthen some of these processes and some of these communications," said Jim Rogers, spokesman for the agency's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

The United States banned all Canadian beef and live cattle after the discovery in May 2003 of mad cow disease in Alberta. Officials eased the ban in August 2003, announcing that imports of boneless beef from cattle younger than 30 months old would be allowed along with other products considered low-risk.

The agency soon began to expand the list of meat products allowed to enter the United States, adding products at the time considered to be at higher risk of spreading mad cow disease, such as beef tongues. Agriculture officials later changed the classification for tongues to low-risk.

Despite saying they would refuse meat from Canadian slaughterhouses that made higher-risk products, agriculture officials decided to accept imports from those plants without notifying the public.

In all, the agency issued 1,144 permits for imported meat "without ensuring that the agency had an appropriate system of internal controls to manage the process," the report found.