The United States apparently imported more than 200,000 pounds of beef last year from countries banned from selling meat products here because of their association with "mad cow disease," according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures.
But Dale Leuck, a member of the USDA's Economic Research Service, said it's too early to tell if the figures represent true imports or are simply miscoding by Customs officials.
"I think we'd prefer not to take them at face value," he said. "We don't know for sure if it is really beef."
"Of most concern," Leuck acknowledged, are records indicating the imports of 2,156 pounds of "meat and edible meat offal" from Britain and 970 pounds from Spain.
Offal contains brain tissue and poses the greatest risk of infecting humans with "mad cow disease," scientifically known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE. Most scientists believe the disease is caused by a mutant form of a naturally occurring protein called a prion that resides mostly in brain and neural tissues.
Representatives of R-CALF, a Montana-based U.S. cattleman's lobbying group that sought the records, called for a full investigation of the apparent import of banned products.
"If this is anywhere near accurate, we're taking an enormous risk," said R-CALF vice president Kathleen Kelley, a rancher from Meeker, Minn.
Leuck gave the Kelley's group two spreadsheets earlier this week with some overlapping data. One sheet considers "Total Beef and Veal Imports," the other with more specific categories. The overall number of imports is higher on the more specific sheet.
For example, under the category "Mixtures of Pork and Beef, Prepared or Preserved," the Netherlands is reported as exporting 349,000 pounds to the U.S. The Netherlands is a "mad cow" infected country, from which beef imports are banned.
An epidemic swept through Britain in the early 1990s before jumping to other European countries and most recently to Japan. More than 180,000 British cattle contracted the disease and to contain it, 4.5 million were killed.
To date, 121 people have contracted the always-fatal brain-wasting disease from eating infected beef. Of that number, 113 were in Britain, including the first case reported among humans in 1996. Most beef products from Europe have been banned here.
Leuck said there would be an investigation to determine if potentially tainted beef is making it past the USDA ban.
He said that a couple of years ago a batch of meat was listed as coming from Britain. On further inspection, it had merely passed through that country. He explained that similar issues might effect the current list.
The lists show exports from BSE states during each month in 2001. In addition to Britain, Spain and the Netherlands, countries on the list include France, Germany, Austria, Poland, Switzerland, Italy and Croatia.