WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. meat plants are allowing brains and spinal cord from older cattle to enter the food supply, violating strict government regulations aimed at preventing the spread of mad cow disease, a federal meat inspectors union said on Monday.
Nearly a year after the first U.S. case of mad cow disease, meat plants have yet to implement measures required by the U.S. Agriculture Department to protect consumers, said the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals.
"We are seeing little to no change at these plants," said Stan Painter, the union's chairman.
The USDA has said its ban on brains, spinal cord, eyes and other so-called specific risk material (SRMs) was the most important action it has taken since the discovery of mad cow disease in the United States.
The deadly disease is carried within the infected animal's brain and nervous system and can be spread to humans when eaten. Older cattle, over 30-months of age, are thought to be at higher risk for mad cow disease than younger animals.
"We know USDA's zero tolerance is not being met," Painter said. "We believe this is a widespread problem." He declined to say how many plants were in violation.
The USDA disagreed with the union, saying no prohibited cattle parts were slipping into the food supply.
"Parts that are defined as SRMs are being removed and being disposed of according to regulations implemented in January 2004," said Steve Cohen, spokesman for USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.
The American Meat Institute, a trade group representing U.S. meatpackers, said it was unaware of any plants in violation of the regulations.
The labor union's allegations come as the United States tries to convince Japan and South Korea, previously its top buyers, to ease their bans on U.S. beef.
Japan, the No. 1 market for U.S. beef in 2003, said it would reopen its borders once Washington could assure that only beef from cattle 20 months or younger would be shipped.