BSE in the US - Is it Really a Concern?

ANALYSIS - Just as the US beef industry recovers from the effects of lean, finely textured beef (LFTB/ pink slime), more negativity hits the industry with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) confirmed in a US dairy cow, reports Charlotte Johnston, TheCattleSite editor.
calendar icon 25 April 2012
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Yesterday, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) confirmed that a case of BSE has been identified in the US. BSE was detected in a dairy cow in central California earlier this week, making it the fourth case of BSE ever in the US.

The case was found through the USDA's routine BSE enhanced surveillance programme. USDA’s ongoing BSE surveillance programme tests approximately 40,000 high-risk cattle annually, bringing the total of tested animals to more than one million since the programme began.

USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is continuing to investigate the case, which was confirmed late Monday, April 23, but preliminary results indicate that this is an atypical case of BSE. According to USDA Chief Veterinary Officer John Clifford, this indicates that the case is unrelated to consumption of animal feed - which is the common transmission of BSE.

Since 2007, the US has had a feed ban in place, preventing protein-based feed being fed to animals. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) strengthened the feed ban in 2008, removing specified risk materials (SRMS which include brain spinal cord from cattle 30-month or older) from animal feed.

In 2008, rules were also updated so that no animal over the age of 30 months, could enter the food chain for human consumption without being prior inspected and risk materials removed.

Food Safety: US Beef is Safe

The USDA has confirmed that the animal has not entered the human food or animal feed supply.

The industry has rallied together to defend US beef safety. The US beef checkoff programme said: "The bottom line for consumers is that beef is safe."

“America’s cattle producers’ top priority is raising healthy cattle. As such, the US beef community has collaborated with and worked with animal health experts and government to put in place multiple interlocking safeguards over the past two decades to prevent BSE from taking hold in the United States," said the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Cattle Health and Well-being Committee Chairman Tom Talbot.

"The finding of this BSE-positive cow is not particularly surprising, and it is certainly no cause for alarm," said Dr Ron DeHaven, chief executive officer of the American Veterinary Medical Association. "It is not surprising because we have known for several years that there is a very low prevalence of BSE in our nation's cattle population. USDA has maintained a good, targeted surveillance programme for the disease, and it is expected that we might find such cases periodically.

"This finding is not cause for alarm because the tissues of any infected cows that pose a food safety risk, i.e. SRMs, have been kept out of the human food supply. What this finding does confirm is that the safeguards put in place by the USDA several years ago are working as they are intended."

The beef and dairy industries have also said that they are encouraged that the on-going surveillance and inspections performed by federal authorities continue to ensure that BSE does not enter the US food supply.

As of yet the effects of this announcement on US beef demand is relatively unknown, although industry experts say that in the past, demand effects of BSE outbreaks have been relatively limited.

The US is recognised by OIE (World Animal Health Organisation) as a country with “controlled risk for BSE.” Dr Clifford said that the detection in no way affects the United States' BSE status as determined by the OIE.

"The United States has in place all of the elements of a system that OIE has determined ensures that beef and beef products are safe for human consumption: a mammalian feed ban, removal of specified risk materials, and vigorous surveillance. Consequently, this detection should not affect US trade."

Effects on trade: South Korea Increases Quarantine Checks

The finding of BSE comes at a time of booming exports for US beef. In 2011, total US beef exports broke post 2003 records, increasing by 20 per cent in volume to 1.78 million tonnes between January to November 2011.

It was expected that this success would continue into 2012.

In 2003, US beef exports collapsed following an outbreak of BSE. Since then the industry has been working tirelessly to convince and prove to the Asian markets in particular, that US beef is a safe product.

Whilst Canada has said that the finding of BSE in the US cattle herd will not affect trade between the US and Canada, South Korea has taken a different stance.

A US-South Korea free trade agreement (FTA) was implemented on March 15, which the US beef industry hoped would increase market access for US beef through reduced tariffs.

However, following the recent announcement of BSE, the South Korean government has said that it will increase quarantine checks on US beef imports and take further emergency measures following this discovery.

"At present, Seoul has not taken steps to halt customs clearance of imported US beef," a spokesperson for the ministry said. Stopping customs clearance of beef can effectively halt all imports. In 2003, South Korea banned US beef imports, and the market was not re-opened until 2008.

South Korea only imports animals under 30 months of age from the US, with all specified risk materials (SRMs) removed.

The South Korean Ministry has said that the latest case of BSE in the US, involving a dairy cow, is not directly connected to beef that can be imported by the country.

Other Asian countries have not yet commented on the situation, although there are reports that Japan has said there is no reason to restrict imports.

Philip Seng, US Meat Export Federation (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 US beef is working. The US Government is providing this same information through its channels to all of our trading partners.”

What next?

The control of BSE has dramatically improved over the last decade, with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association saying that BSE is fast approaching eradication worldwide. In 2011 there were only 29 cases of BSE worldwide, a 90 per cent reduction since the peak in 1992 of more than 37,300 cases.

However, the news of BSE will add more pressure onto the beef industry, which is still recovering from the pink slime scandal.

Further Reading

- Go to our previous news item on this story by clicking here.
Charlotte Johnston, Editor

Charlotte Johnston - Editor

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