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USDA: Beef supply safe from BSE

On April 24, USDA announced that tests showed a dairy cow in California had contracted the first U.S. case of BSE disease discovered in six years and only the fourth ever confirmed in this country. However, the animal did not enter the food supply.

“This discovery shows that current safeguards are in place to protect consumers and the food supply are working,” says Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey. “Beef consumers in the U.S. and around the world should have tremendous confidence that Iowa and U.S. beef remains wholesome and safe.”

BSE, also known as mad cow disease, is a neurological disorder in cattle. Humans can become infected by eating tissue from diseased cattle and develop a fatal brain disease. Samples from the animal were tested at USDA’s National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Ames, Iowa.

Key Points

Discovery of BSE in a California cow was only the fourth U.S. case ever detected.

Latest case was discovered through routine testing of cow at rendering plant.

USDA remains vigilant on BSE and is committed to safeguards already in place.

The cow “was never presented for slaughter for human consumption, so at no time was it a risk to the food supply or to human health,” says John Clifford, USDA’s chief veterinarian. “We remain confident in the health of the national herd and safety of beef and dairy products.”

Safeguards are working

A system of three interlocking safeguards against BSE protects the public and animal health in the U.S., says Clifford. The most important is removal of specific risk materials — parts of an animal that would contain BSE should an animal have the disease — from all animals presented for slaughter in the U.S. The second safeguard is a strong feed ban to protect cattle from the disease. Since 1997, the Food and Drug Administration has prohibited the feeding of most mammalian proteins to ruminants, including cattle.

The third safeguard is an ongoing BSE surveillance program that allows USDA to detect the disease if it exists at very low levels in the U.S. cattle population. This program tests about 40,000 head each year and targets cattle populations where the disease is most likely to be found.

“These steps provide assurances to consumers and our international trading partners that our safeguards to prevent BSE are working,” says Clifford. “We test for BSE at levels 10 times greater than World Animal Health Organization standards.”

The targeted population for ongoing surveillance includes cattle exhibiting signs of central nervous disorders or signs associated with BSE, non-ambulatory cattle and dead cattle. Samples come from farms, veterinary diagnostic labs, public health labs, slaughter facilities, veterinary clinics and livestock markets.

In the California case, the samples came from a rendering facility. The samples were sent to the California Animal Health and Food Safety Lab, and then to USDA’s National Veterinary Services Lab in Iowa for further testing. USDA confirmed the animal was positive for atypical BSE, a very rare form of the disease not generally associated with an animal eating infected feed.

The animal’s carcass was held at the rendering plant and then destroyed. “At no time did it present a risk to the food supply,” says Clifford. “And scientific research indicates BSE cannot be transmitted in cow’s milk, even if the milk comes from a cow with BSE. Milk and milk products are considered safe.”

USDA has taken necessary steps to ensure U.S. beef is safe, and this latest finding should not hurt beef exports, he says. After mad cow was detected nine years ago, beef exports dropped from 2.5 billion pounds in 2003 to 460 million pounds in 2004, and only recently have they surpassed the 2003 level. In 2003 USDA says there were 29 worldwide cases of BSE, down from a peak in 1992 of 37,311 cases. USDA and FDA officials attribute the decline to the effectiveness of feed bans.


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This article published in the May, 2012 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.