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Food

Atypical BSE poses no risk to human health, food supply

Written by Saige Albert
With the April 24 announcement confirming that a dairy cow from central California has been infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), the USDA and cattle industry have responded, ensuring consumers that the food supply is safe.
    “The carcass of the animal is being held under state authority at a rendering facility in California and will be destroyed,” said USDA Chief Veterinary Officer John Clifford in a press release. “It was never presented for slaughter for human consumption, so at no time presented a risk to the food supply or human health.”
The case
    The dairy cow infected was confirmed to present a very rare form of BSE not generally associated with consumption of infected feed, according to the USDA and Clifford. This event marks the fourth case of BSE in the U.S. since 2003.
    “BSE can only be spread through contaminated feed, and in 1997 the FDA, with the full support of the beef industry, banned from cattle feed such protein supplements that could spread BSE,” said the beef checkoff. “BSE is not a contagious disease.”
    Ann Wittmann of the Wyoming Beef Council also notes that because of the strict surveillance program for BSE, the animal was identified and did not enter the human food or animal feed supply.
Safety in the food supply
    “Evidence shows that our systems and safeguards to prevent BSE are working, as are similar actions taken by countries around the world,” added Clifford. “In 2011, there were only 29 worldwide cases of BSE, a dramatic decline and 99 percent reduction since the peak in 1992 of 37,311 cases.”
    For consumers, Clifford emphasized that beef is safe, mentioning that safeguards prevent any infected material from entering the food supply. Beef advocacy groups also mention that BSE is not contagious, nor is it transferred through milk or beef.  
Market effects
    The finding will not affect the U.S.’s BSE classification through the World Organization for Animal Health, and the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF) adds that it should not affect access to U.S. beef worldwide.
    Philip Seng, USMEF president and CEO said, “We are already reaching out to our trade contacts around the world to reassure them that this finding is an indication that the system to safeguard the wholesomeness and safety of U.S. beef is working.”
    South Korea’s agriculture ministry official said, “We have requested details from the U.S. side, as we need to determine which necessary measures should be taken.”
    Despite stricter quarantine checks on U.S. beef imports, an official for South Korea’s agriculture ministry stressed that a formal embargo was unlikely. The country’s two largest retailers initially suspended U.S. beef sales, with one resuming sales shortly after.
    “Cases of atypical bovine spongiform encephalopathy occur occasionally,” Mexico’s agriculture ministry said in a statement, also noting that Mexico will continue the same inspection regimen for beef. “These cases have appeared in different places around the world and don’t affect trade between countries.”
    Canada, Taiwan, Japan and the European Union also indicated that U.S. beef would continue to be imported, according to Meatingplace. Additionally, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told Meatingplace that the case should have no bearing on talks for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
    “The general consensus is that international trade should not suffer any material disruption as a result of this incident,” said JBS in their statement.
On the home front
    CME Group notes that, with negative attention directed at the beef industry from lean, finely textured beef, the BSE announcement was the last thing that the beef industry needed, but added, “In the past, the demand effect of BSE outbreaks has been relatively limited.”
    “Current rules make the disease a non-event for the regular consumer but there may still be a psychological effect,” added CME Group in their April 25 report. “The effect on domestic demand at this point is unknown and unknowable.”
    Following the last case of BSE in the U.S., confirmed on March 15, 2006, beef exports in the following two months actually rose nearly 85 percent from the previous year.
    After the announcement, live cattle futures dropped the daily limit on April 24, but rebounded the following day, due to the reassurance that international exports would continue and restrictions on U.S. beef are not planned, according to Doane Agricultural Services in a CattleNetwork report.
    “The beef and dairy in the American food supply is safe and USDA remains confident in the health of U.S. cattle. The systems and safeguards in place to protect animal and human health worked as planned to identify this case quickly, and will ensure that it presents no risk to the food supply or to human health,” said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “USDA has no reason to believe that any other U.S. animals are currently affected, but we will remain vigilant and committed to the safeguards in place.”
    Clifford also emphasized that USDA, FDA and California animal and public health officials have begun a full investigation of the case to determine the origin and age of the cow.
    For more information on BSE, visit BSEinfo.org. Saige Albert is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

More about BSE
    “BSE is a progressive neurological disease among cattle that is always fatal. It belongs to a family of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies,” said USDA Chief Veterinary Officer John Clifford in his statement announcing the fourth BSE case in the U.S. “Affected animals may display nervousness or aggression, abnormal posture, difficulty in coordination and rising, decreased milk production, or loss of body weight despite continued appetite.
    The last case of BSE occurred March 15, 2006. However, the U.S. began taking preventative measures for BSE beginning in 1989, and, as a result of the actions, BSE is not a risk in the U.S., according to the beef checkoff.
    To further protect against BSE potential, the Food and Drug Administration banned ruminant derived protein supplements in feed in 1997, breaking the cycle of BSE, and strengthened that ban in 2008 to include removal of specified risk materials, meaning brain and spinal cord from cattle 30 months and older.
    Global BSE cases peaked in 1992 at 37,311 cases, but preventative measures have reduced numbers dramatically, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation, who noted that, of the four cases seen in the U.S. since 2003, one was traced back to Canada and the other two earlier cases were the atypical form of the disease.