BSE Update

It killed a man in Japan, got its proverbial goat in France and now has health and agricultural officials worldwide scrambling for answers. The human case of the brain-wasting disease and the discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) under natural conditions in animals other than cows are both firsts, and health and agricultural officials in both Europe and Japan are continually seeking to reassure the public. Meanwhile, BSE has sent shockwaves through commerce in Canada and the United States. Canada is already reeling from three confirmed cases of mad cow, two of which were discovered in a 9-day period in mid-January. Compounding the dilemma are higher dairy costs in Canada to offset the BSE fallout and rising production cost and a Montana-based cattlemen’s association effort to stop the USDA from allowing livestock and beef imports from Canada into the United States. That ban forced a few U.S. meatpackers to downsize, but at least one plant indicated that it will end the temporary suspension. At press time, USDA announced that two U.S. government reports assessing mad cow disease in Canada are expected to be completed by the end of March. The agency is also delaying plans to resume imports of some Canadian beef until a review of recent cases of mad cow disease is completed. “We expect a final report on feed ban issues in mid-February and the epidemiological report by the end of March,” newly appointed Agricultural Secretary Mike Johanns told Reuters. “These reports will be critical as we consider whether any adjustments to current policies are warranted.” However, it was not clear in Johanns’ written testimony whether the reports would alter the March 7 target date in the USDA’s plan to reopen the border to more shipments of Canadian cattle and beef. In a statement, the United Nations says Canada’s two recent cases of mad cow disease are isolated incidents and no cause for panic. In fact, better testing procedures brought the cases to light, one of the agency’s animal production experts, Andrew Speedy says. “The three cases in Canada and the one case in the U.S. from an imported animal are isolated incidents,” Speedy adds. Dr. Susan Brewer, a professor of food sciences at the University of Illinois, agrees, saying the logic in cases of even remote epidemic threat is to use as many tests as possible, especially since livestock is often shuffled around even after knowledge of problems. “Based on the amount of testing we have had over the last 15 years, the risk is very, very, very low,” Dr. Brewer says. “It is politically charged.but now the agenda is a matter of testing and trace back: Where the animal came from, what herds it made contact with and where its trim went.”

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