The official who oversees Maine’s meat inspection program denied Saturday that the recall of 25,000 pounds of beef by a Greene slaughterhouse was because of a paperwork problem, saying it was due instead to improper handling of the meat.
Ellis Additon, director of the Bureau of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources, said the recalled beef posed a very low health risk to the public because there was no sign that the beef slaughtered by Bubier Meats and sold between November and August was infected by mad cow disease. The state’s Maine Meat and Poultry Inspection program announced the recall Friday.
The beef processed by Bubier was recalled because Bubier failed to remove the spinal column tissues that could potentially allow the transmission of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, which is believed to cause a rare, fatal brain disease in humans who eat the tissues, Additon said.
“It is a federal law that any meat from an animal over 30 months old has to have the spinal cord removed, and in this case that did not happen,” Additon said.
Additon said the recall was voluntary. It was the second voluntary recall by Bubier Meats in recent years. The slaughterhouse voluntarily recalled about 2,000 pounds of meat in 2007 for possible E. coli contamination when fecal matter was detected on processing equipment.
Maine officials referred questions from the public to Tobie Bubier, manager of Bubier Meats, at 946-5015. Bubier did not return messages left at that number Saturday. A woman who answered the telephone Friday hung up when a reporter called.
The meat was shipped by Bubier on 18 dates and sold at Rosemont Markets in Portland and Yarmouth and Maine Meat in Kittery. All of the recalled products were processed into smaller cuts, such as prime rib roasts and bone-in rib-eye steaks, with no identifying consumer packaging.
Additon said a recall of meat for possible mad cow disease contamination was rare, if not unprecedented, in Maine, which is home to about 10 slaughterhouses, all considered small compared to facilities in the Midwest. Maine’s slaughterhouses handle locally raised domestic meat for retail and private consumption and wild game such as deer during hunting season.
Additon said the problem at Bubier Meats during the past year was detected during a routine audit of company slaughter logs, and denied the retailers’ claims that it arose from a problem with paperwork or vacationing meat inspectors.
Evan Mills, the butcher for Rosemont Market, on Friday called the problem “a paperwork fiasco.”
Jarrod Spangler, who owns Maine Meat, said Friday that an inspector from the Maine Department of Agriculture had given approval to Bubier Meats to sell meat carcasses that contained backbones. But when the inspector went on vacation, a different inspector concluded that the slaughterhouse did not have the proper documents for processing such meat. “This is a ridiculous situation,” he said.
However, Additon said Bubier Meats, like other slaughterhouses, agreed to operate under a federally approved plan. Bubier’s plan requires it to handle all meat as if it is 30 months or older, which requires the removal of the spinal cord. Bubier processed some cattle under 30 months of age and failed to remove the spinal cord even though under its plan it is required to remove the spinal column of all beef it processes, regardless of its age.
Additon said Bubier is now required to submit a written plan to the state on how it intends to prevent the same mistake from happening again.
Before they are slaughtered, beef cattle in Maine are examined by state inspectors for signs of mad cow disease while the animals are at rest and in motion. Additon said all of the meat being recalled came from animals that appeared healthy with no indication of disease.
He said consumers who believe they have the recalled meat should return it to the retailer. He said people who believe they ate some of the recalled meat and have health concerns should call their physicians.
“They really shouldn’t be worried,” Additon said.
Additon said mad cow disease is extremely rare. It has been detected in only four cows in the U.S. since it surfaced in the United Kingdom in the mid-1980s. In the United Kingdom, the country most heavily hit by the disease, about 186,000 cows have died of BSE. A total of 229 people, four of them in the United States, have died of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, the human brain disease linked to BSE.
Some of the recalled meat came from The Caldwell Family Farm, which operates a 225-head natural beef operation in Turner. Food lawyer Lauren Handel of Sag Harbor, N.Y., released a statement from the Caldwells expressing dismay at the agriculture department’s handling of the matter.
“We are saddened that the state Department of Agriculture’s actions needlessly may have caused fear and harm to the reputations of small businesses,” the statement said.
The Caldwells said there is no risk to the public because none of their animals was fed with animal byproducts, which is the only known route of transmission of BSE to cattle. “Furthermore, all specified risk materials were removed from the meat before it reached consumers,” they said.
Maine Meat in Kittery made leaflets available to customers Saturday saying that the meat they sell from the Caldwell farm is from naturally fed cattle, which are never exposed to animal byproducts that might spread the disease.
Co-owner Shannon Hill said the store received queries about the matter from two customers and no one returned any beef to the market. “We have nothing to hide,” she said.
Mills, the Rosemont Market butcher, said he regularly buys Caldwell farm meat, which he said is perfectly safe to eat.
Mills said customers raised concerns about the beef Saturday. “I have been fielding a lot of questions,” he said.
Some customers at Rosemont were concerned about the recall, while others said they had complete faith in the products sold at the store.
Abbey Francis of Portland, who was raised on a farm in Templeton, California, said she is in favor of zealous inspection of meat. “The way it is raised and butchered is really important,” she said.
But Ella Eastman of Peaks Island said she is not especially concerned about the recall.
“There is a little bit too much worry over these things,” Eastman said.