Slaughterhouse operators can expect closer scrutiny from the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) in the months ahead. In a critical report, USDA's Inspector General warns federal beef inspectors aren't strictly following cattle screening rules, thereby increasing the risk of mad cow disease in the nation's meat supply. The report said it found cases where rules covering the slaughter of cattle are sometimes ignored.

USDA report reveals downers

For example, 29 suspect cows were slaughtered at two of a dozen meatpacking plants reviewed in an audit. The report says the animals were incapable of walking, and at least 20 of them fell into the category of downer cows, animals whose condition can't be explained by injury. Downer cows are considered to be at the highest risk for mad cow disease.

Department regulations prohibit the slaughter of downer cows for any reason. The report said it's possible more suspect cattle are entering the food supply because USDA's recordkeeping is in need of improvement. The Inspector General's report said auditors found no cases of banned tissues entering the human food supply and FSIS says in all 29 cases, there were injuries to the downed cattle that explained their condition. Even so, FSIS is feeling the heat, and said it will clarify its policy for slaughtering downer cattle and issue new guidance to its more than 6,000 inspectors as soon as possible.