USDA To Cut Back BSE Testing

Enhanced surveillance program will end in 30 days, and only 40,000 animals will be tested per year. Jacqui Fatka

Published on: Jul 20, 2006

After testing over 759,000 animals, USDA announced Thursday it will cut back its testing of bovine spongiform encephalopathy tests to 40,000. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns says the lower number is still 10 times the international testing standard and assures the cutback will not impact ongoing trade resumption negotiations.

Johanns states some people have suggested the enhanced surveillance program stay in place indefinitely. "There's no scientific justification for doing so," he claims. "There is no significant BSE problem in the United States and after all of this surveillance I can say there never was."

The very earliest the transition can begin is late August, Johanns says. Currently approximately 5,000 tests or 1,000 animals a day are run, costing approximately $1 million per week.

Under the program, USDA will continue to collect samples from a variety of sites and from the cattle populations where the disease is most likely to be detected, similar to the enhanced surveillance program procedures. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Administrator Ron DeHaven explains high-risk animals showing clinical signs will be tested. Although animals that died on the farm may be tested, it won't be as high of a priority in the scaled-back testing procedures, DeHaven explains.

Trading problems not expected

Since the beginning of 2006, Johanns has been public about the department's desire to scale-back testing. In April, USDA released an analysis of seven years of BSE surveillance data. This included data from an enhanced surveillance program, which began in June 2004, as a one-time effort to determine the prevalence of BSE in the United States. The analysis concluded that the prevalence of BSE in the United States is less than one case per million adult cattle. The analysis further revealed that the most likely number of cases is between four and seven infected animals out of 42 million adult cattle. The analysis was submitted to a peer review process and a panel of outside experts affirmed the conclusions.

Johanns told reporters in a media call Thursday trading partners were made aware of the scaled-back testing prior to the official announcement. Even though trade resumption talks continue with Japan, Johanns says this announcement benefits those talks. "It would be enormously, if not downright, dishonest to hold back and wait until they open their market place to make this announcement," he says.

USDA has an obligation to provide 30 days notice of the change to contractors who are performing the sampling and testing, so the earliest the new surveillance program would begin is late August. That time allows us to work with trading partners to work out any issues, Johanns adds. "The hope is that they'll recognize the science behind this."

In the works

Johanns could not say whether Japan would resume trade before the August deadline Congressional members have put on imposing sanctions.

In addition, Johanns commented USDA is not ready to make a final announcement on a downer cattle ban but is finalizing details for a rule that may or may not make the non-ambulatory cattle ban permanent.

USDA has an investigator in Canada looking into last week's Canadian BSE find in a dairy cow born well-after the 1997 feed ban, only 50 months old. DeHaven says the U.S. realizes with a feed ban there are "leaks in the system" that allow for younger animals to contract the disease. DeHaven says Canada's BSE testing and prevention methods mirror the United States. However, more information on the latest find is needed before a final rule on resuming older live beef trade cattle between the United States and Canada is finalized.