On the eve of the 2005 Fourth of July holiday break came word of a second cow in the United States that was confirmed as testing positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy.
The BSE cow announcement had three ironies. One, it was reminiscent of the first U.S. case reported at day's end on Dec. 23, 2003 by USDA, just before most folks were scattering for Christmas Eve - another holiday period. But that holiday season case was a Canadian-born cow in Washington State, while the latest positive was not only this U.S. cow - but also a TEXAS cow - another irony, as Texas signifies the importance of the beef industry.
Finally, the disclosure came at a time associated with flag waving, popping firecrackers - and putting some tasty beef on the grill. That's the third irony.
Yet, a veteran in the Texas beef industry says the report should give consumers more - not less confidence - in U.S. beef being the safest in the world.
"USDA is testing thousands of cows - doing a great job," assures Randy Carson, president of Abilene Livestock Auction, Abilene, Texas. "It shows how well the system works when you catch a 12-year-old cow. This is a cow that was sent to the rendering plant. But it didn't even go into pet food. It was incinerated."
The 12-year age would place the cow at a birth date back as far as 1993 - well before the 1997 ban on feeding ruminant byproducts to other ruminant animals. This is a key point, Carson notes, because with USDA's vigorous testing and the more sensitive second-opinion testing in Weybridge, England, it wouldn't surprise him at all if another BSE animal soon turned up in Texas or elsewhere.
"I've seen cows 15 and 16 years old - they can live a long time, depending on their type of care," Carson notes. "So more BSE cows won't surprise me at all - both nothing has gotten in the food chain. That's a credit to USDA."
It's just going to take time for other older cows to move through the market system and be tested, he adds.
Dr. Mindy Brashears agrees with Carson. The associate professor of food safety and food microbiology at Texas Tech University says USDA has "an aggressive system in place" to spot and contain the disease. She says humans have nothing to fear from eating U.S. beef.
In 2004, Texas had 150,000 ranchers, cattlemen and dairy farmers - representing 15% of the nation's combined beef and dairy producers. In fact, all 254 counties in Texas have some beef cattle production.
The cattle industry is family business in Texas, which - despite its romanticized titanic ranges - actually has one-fourth of its cattle operations of 100 head or less.
Huge ranch or little "ranchette" - Texas cash receipts from all cattle and calves in 2004 totaled $8 billion - 17% of the nation's total. Conservatively, the Texas cattle industry has annual economic impact of $14 billion to the state's economy.
Indeed, Texas cash receipts from cattle and calves, are more than half of the state's entire agricultural cash receipts.
"Texas cattle producers are committed to ensuring that the nation's beef supply remains safe for all consumers here and abroad," says Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs. "It is important to remember that the animal was banned from the food or feed chain, and that long-standing safeguards have been in place to protect public health. Following the discovery of a Canadian-born cow with BSE in Washington State in December 2003, additional safeguards were added."
Combs, herself, is from several generations of ranchers in deep West Texas, where she continues to ranch.
Commissioner Combs personally met last year with British veterinarians, researchers and cattle raisers in the United Kingdom to learn more about how the United Kingdom handled their outbreak of BSE.
"Their system clearly had been inadequate," Combs notes. "This is not the case in the United States. We have had a nearly 20-year plan with effective safeguards."
Burt Rutherford of the Texas Cattle Feeders Association, Amarillo, says the positive BSE was sampled in Texas and came from a Texas herd. The animal was a 12-year-old Brahman cross, which was born and raised by the same owner. Last November, the animal was identified as being "high risk" and was tested and segregated from entering the chain for human food. It was also prevented from entering the animal feed supply, he notes, and its carcass incinerated.
A more sensitive test in England confirmed the BSE-positive on June 24, and on June 29, it was further disclosed that the cow was born and raised in Texas.
USDA Chief Veterinarian John Clifford says the animal went to a pet food plant in Texas, originally, and was selected for sampling on arrival.
The Texas source of the animal is now under a "hold order" as USDA will continue to identify "animals of interest" in that herd, Clifford says.
If the age of other animals in the Texas herd cannot be pinpointed with certainty, then USDA may expand its inquiry into all animals in the herd. USDA also is interested in any offspring in the herd born within the last two years - especially any calves born to the aged BSE-positive cow.
Dr. Clifford, too, assures American beef remains among the safest in the world.
As for many Texans - and fellow Americans - it was heat up the grill for the 2005 Fourth of July holidays.