After days of policy questions and critique following a single case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, also known as mad cow disease) in Washington state, the USDA strengthened its policies Tuesday (Dec. 30) intended to protect the U.S. beef supply.

Most notably, the USDA has banned non-ambulatory cattle—animals that cannot walk, known as “downers”—from the food supply. The American Meat Institute had stated such a ban would waste safe meat.

“It’s important to distinguish that not all downer animals are the same,” says AMI Foundation president James H. Hodges. “Cattle can become non-ambulatory for a variety of reasons. It happens mostly because of trauma or injury during transport. Most are perfectly healthy, but just have some inability to walk,” Hodges says. Until now downer animals have been inspected by veterinarians and suspect animals tested for BSE.

The BSE-positive cow in Washington state was a downer, and although the carcass was being tested for BSE, the meat was processed and entered the food supply. It has since been recalled. The USDA has issued a mandatory test-and-hold policy requiring that beef carcasses and products from animals undergoing BSE testing be withheld from the food supply pending test results. Hodges says this is routine practice at most of the nation’s beef plants and AMI policy.

Despite the fact that the meat from the cow in question entered the food supply, and has been recalled, Hodges says, “we are confident that beef from the cow is safe, because the infectious agent is not contained in muscle cuts like steak and ground beef.” Hodges explains that almost all domestic meat produced over the last decade has been processed using advanced meat recovery (AMR). AMR requires that the spinal cord be removed before the specialized machines clean meat away from the bone. The USDA requires that AMR machines must not crush, grind, or pulverize bones when removing meat to ensure no nervous system material (which carries BSE) ends up in meat.

Prior to the Dec. 30 announcement of stricter policies, the USDA required that any meat produced by older systems that make mechanically separated meat (MSM)—which allows bone crushing, grinding and pulverizing —be labeled as such. As of Dec. 30, MSM processing is banned.

The USDA also has strengthened regulation of AMR, requiring that in addition to the spinal cord, dorsal root ganglia, clusters of nerve cells connected to the spinal cord along the vertebrae column, are prohibited from entering meat product. The USDA has identified and banned specified risk materials (SRMs) in cattle over 30 months of age—the time at which BSE manifests itself. In addition to spinal cord and dorsal root ganglia, SRMs include skull, brain, trigeminal ganglia, eyes, and small intestine. Tonsils already are considered inedible.

Other USDA changes include an immediate implementation of a national animal ID system to tract the nation’s livestock from point of origin through food production, and a ban on air-injected stunning to ensure that portions of the brain are not dislocated into the tissues of the carcass as a consequence of humanely stunning cattle during the slaughter process.

The American Meat Institute and its members have stood behind procedures already in place to protect the beef supply and commended required surveillance for detecting the BSE case in Washington state. Having previously considered many of the USDA’s new policies unnecessary and wasteful, the AMI is showing support now.

“Although these extraordinary new measures are very aggressive and indeed go well beyond international standards, we recognize that they were developed in an effort to protect our cattle herd and to reinforce consumer confidence in beef safety,” says AMI President J. Patrick Boyle.

Boyle also is urging U.S. trading partners to take notice of the swift federal response and reestablish beef trade with the United States.