The Cow That Stole Christmas

DC Dialogue

What have we learned from the first domestic case of BSE 10 years ago?

Published on: December 23, 2013

On this day 10 years ago, the cattle industry experienced the heartbreaking news that a cow with bovine spongiform encephalopathy had been identified on a U.S. farm. Like other tragedies I imagine many in the agriculture industry remember what they were doing when they heard the news.

For me, I was traveling to see family and was getting ready to stop for the night when my boss left a message on my cell phone informing me of the news. My Christmas vacation turned into daily, or sometimes more often, calls featuring U.S. Department of Agriculture chief veterinarian Ron DeHaven, who soon became a household name for cattle farmers.

My conversations with family – many themselves involved in agriculture and cattle business – shared the many unknowns that would come from the Washington state cow.

We learned to never say "mad cow" and had to do some reassuring of those around us not familiar with the safety of the U.S. food supply.

Around the world, it took an even deeper economic toll. Unfortunately, according to Cattlefax, the United States beef industry lost nearly $22 billion in potential sales through 2010 due to BSE bans and restrictions around the world.

It's interesting to look back at what we thought we would need and what we actually have 10 years out.

I have a file tucked away in my desk of a press release dated Dec. 26, 2003 with a long list of experts on BSE. I must have kept it all these years thinking I may need it, but as the years have passed, the pertinent concerns have changed.

Two of the first resources listed were from Digital Angel Corp which was in the business of tracking animals and the other from Emerge Interactive to discuss the technology's role in tracking biohazard outbreaks. One thing seemed certain at the onset of the find – that quicker tracking would be necessary to deal with future diseases. But mandatory identification and the

Instead, today the industry is in only the first phase of its Animal Disease Traceability rule. The final rule published in January 2013, requires unless specifically exempted, livestock moved interstate would have to be officially identified and accompanied by an interstate certificate of veterinary inspection or other documentation, such as owner-shipper statements or brand certificates. "The ADT rule, uses existing state programs and databases to address traceability in a way that provides flexibility for the speed of commerce," said National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. president Scott George.

In 2006, under the previous Administration, USDA initiated the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). This voluntary program asked producers to register their premises and identify their animals with a national animal tracking database. After seeing low enrollment in NAIS, the Department launched a series of efforts in 2009 to assess the issues and concerns which were preventing widespread accep­tance of NAIS in the livestock community.

Today George said significant strides in overall knowledge of BSE in the past 10 years have been made. "We know that the efforts of our interlocking safeguards have been effective at controlling the spread and risk of BSE. Steps like the ruminant to ruminant feed ban, the removal of specified risk materials, the ban on downer animals and the robust BSE surveillance program have all allowed for the effective control of BSE. We still have work to do to completely understand BSE and research still continues through the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service."

George concluded, "One thing is obvious, we’re getting closer to eliminating the threat of BSE."

What are your thoughts? What do you remember from that day? And do you think we've made the necessary changes to protect and deal with future events?