The U.S. Agriculture Department announced last week that it will begin testing for traces of spinal cord and brain tissue in meat at processing plants as an extra safeguard against mad cow disease.

USDA says the additional testing is necessary to prevent misbranding of beef products and to provide consumers
with more protection against mad cow disease.

Last year consumer groups urged the USDA to test for trace amounts of spinal cord and brain tissue in meat products as they felt inspections conducted throughout the plant by USDA meat inspectors were not enough protection. Many plants use equipment to strip meat from bones and that equipment can inadvertently leave bits of spinal cord and brain tissue in raw beef.

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly called mad cow disease, does not exist in the United States. However, the disease is believed to have spread from Britain to other European countries when the bones, and spinal cord of diseased cattle were ground up and used for livestock feed. The U.S. banned the feeding of meat and bone meal in 1997 and no case of the disease has ever been found in the U.S.

In addition to the new testing procedures, USDA said it will prohibit meat tainted with spinal cord and brain tissue to be labeled and sold as beef. If any meat product tainted with spinal cord or brain tissue makes its way into the marketplace, a recall will be issued. The USDA recommends all meat products to be tested be held from the market for a day in order to avoid a costly recall.

The American Meat Institute says meeting the USDA's new rules will be challenging. That’s because of the cost incurred by withholding product for a day in order to pass testing.