Industry moves fast to inform on latest BSE find

by Bryan Salvage
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On April 24, the US Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service confirmed that the nation's fourth case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was discovered in a dairy cow from central California as part of its targeted surveillance system. The carcass is being held under state authority at a rendering facility in California and is destined to be destroyed.

This animal was never presented for slaughter for human consumption, so it never presented a risk to the food supply or human health, said USDA Chief Veterinary Officer John Clifford.

As MEATPOULTRY.com relayed in its April 24 post (BSE-infected cow discovered in California), this marks the fourth confirmed case of BSE ever found in the US. The first BSE find in the US was in December 2003 after an infected Holstein cow was discovered in Washington State; trace-back revealed it was imported from Canada in August 2001. Case No. 2 was confirmed in a cow in Texas in June 2005 and was the first endemic case of BSE in the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta said. Case No. 3 was announced in March 2006 when USDA confirmed BSE in a downer cow on a farm in Alabama.

Clifford emphatically stated this latest BSE detection in no way affects the US’ BSE status as determined by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE). All elements of a system that OIE has determined ensures that beef and beef products are safe for human consumption are in place in the US — this includes a mammalian feed ban, removal of specified risk materials, and vigorous surveillance. Consequently, this detection should not affect US trade, he insisted.

As far as the international market reaction is concerned, so far, so good. Although many headlines on the morning of April 25 contained the phrase “Mad Cow Disease,” only some South Korean stores have been reported as putting the brakes on US beef regarding this latest US BSE find — while other trading partners, such as Japan and Canada, already publically stated they have no plans to stop imports of US beef.

USDA and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) should be commended for moving fast to get the facts out to industry journalists on April 24. Yesterday afternoon, the NCBA conducted a teleconference for journalists featuring Dr. Guy Loneragan, an epidemiologist and professor of Food Safety and Public Health and at Texas Tech Univ. and one of the industry’s leading animal health experts. Loneragan explained the government and industry are very early into the epidemiological investigation as Dr. Clifford outlined the morning of April 24, but several things are known.

This case was in a dairy cow located in central California. The animal was presented to rendering, which means none of the animal entered the human or pet food supply. “This really does illustrate our [BSE] surveillance system is working very well,” he said.

BSE is extremely rare in the US and the surveillance system was designed specifically to identify these rare events when they do occur. Surveillance systems appear to be working the way they were intended to. “The US has a very low rate of BSE and this has resulted from a number of steps that have taken place over the years,” he said.
Loneragan explained since BSE was first discovered in the late 1980s in the UK, a tremendous amount of scientific knowledge has been generated since then. Most important, the US beef industry now knows how to effectively control BSE to protect the cattle population and the human population. This scientific knowledge has resulted in constructing a series of firewalls, which have been put into place by a variety of USDA and FDA agencies “and they are working effectively well,” he added. Bottom line, the US beef supply and milk supply remains safe.

USDA announced this case is an atypical BSE case. “The difference between what we classify as a classical BSE vs. atypical case of BSE is based on what is very much like a DNA fingerprint,” Loneragan said. “It’s technically a protein fingerprint and they vary slightly. We do know that the firewalls we have established and put in place to control and protect us and the cattle population from classical BSE work to protect the cattle and human populations from atypical BSE.”

When I asked him if the US beef industry feared many countries would ban US beef because of this latest BSE find as they did after the first find in 2003, Loneragan said he couldn’t speak for individual countries but he could speak for the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), which has been updating its code on how to safely trade in animals and animal products. OIE has established mechanisms allowing countries that are part of the origination to effectively and safely trade in beef in the event of a BSE find.
“Those recommended regulations have been updated as scientific knowledge grows,” he added. “More countries are now adhering to those OIE regulations. The USDA has developed mechanisms that allow the trade in beef and beef products safely around the world. I am hopeful as more countries signed onto and implemented those regulations from the OIE that there will be less disruption of trade in events like this.”
This latest BSE find is the result of a very active, targeted and expansive surveillance program to find these rare events, he said. “It does not represent an animal health concern and it does not represent a public health concern.”
When MEATPOULTRY.com asked how many countries banned US beef following the first three BSE finds in the US, Mike Deering, NCBA director of policy communications, responded “All of the action was done after the first one in 2003. The second two yielded no closure or barriers of export markets.”

Worldwide, while there have been in excess of 180,000 classical cases of BSE discovered since the first find; the vast majority of them having been in the UK. There have only been a little more than 60 cases of atypical BSE discovered, Loneragan explained. “If we focus on the US, the US has detected four cases of BSE,” he added. “Three of those four, the latter three, have all been an atypical case. In terms of the atypical BSE, it’s so rare that our understanding of the potential for feed transmission is more limited. Most of the atypical cases that have been identified have been in much older animals.

“It could be [atypical BSE] is a sporadic, spontaneous event that occurs extremely rarely in older animals,” he continued.

The most commonly proposed speculation regarding atypical BSE is it is a spontaneous event. “If you look at the 60 cases that occurred around the world, they appeared to have occurred quite randomly...and they were independent of a BSE epidemic in Europe. The atypical cases occurred independently, which would indicate it is distinct from the BSE epidemic and may actually be a spontaneous, extremely rare event in older animals,” Loneragan iterated.

When asked if industry was already reminding and informing customers and consumers about the safety of US beef despite this latest BSE find, Colin Woodall, NCBA vice president of government affairs, said “We are watching this very closely and trying to respond to it. We are doing several things. One is to make sure our members are as prepared as possible. What we find a lot of times in issues like this is customers will ask their neighbors. We want to make sure that those neighbors who are cattle producers are prepared to talk about this.

“Probably the biggest tool we have right now is the use of social media,” he added. “We have to make sure we use our tools such as Twitter, Facebook and our website to get the facts as far and wide as we possibly can. Another reason why we’re having this press conference is to make sure the media is well aware of the situation from our perspective.

“It’s about trying to hit as many media outlets as possible to make sure consumers know that the beef remains safe,” Woodall continued. “This is a great example of how all of the programs we have, the interlocking firewalls, do work to protect this industry. This is really an animal health issue, not a food safety issue.”

Joe Schuele, US Meat Export Federation spokesman, later told MEATPOULTRY.com that after the first BSE find in the US in 2003, almost every foreign market for US beef closed for some period of time. But that was almost a decade ago and BSE cases have been treated much differently internationally since then.

“If you look at more recent BSE cases that have been detected in beef exporting countries, the trade impact was not nearly what it was in 2003,” he said. “We have much more information about the effectiveness of our safeguards, the trade impact for more recent cases has been much less dramatic... and that’s why we are confident this [latest BSE find in the US] should not affect our level of access internationally.”

USMEF’s international staff will be communicating with their key customers and contacts in the industry on this matter. “One of Dr. Clifford’s points covered in his call with the industry [April 24] is that agricultural attachés throughout the world, as well as other trade officials, will be in contact with their counterparts in the foreign markets to discuss the situation and to reassure them about the safety of our beef exports. I do feel the plan is in place to communicate that information swiftly.”

Industry and USDA should be applauded on moving so quickly to reach out to the media and discuss the particulars of this latest BSE find. As Benjamin Franklin once said, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

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