Chasing rabbit trails may be over when it comes to BSE reporting

Finally, media outlets from coast to coast have gotten the message. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)—once coined as Mad Cow Disease by reporters and news anchors across America—is a rare disease in cattle and poses little threat to the public, thanks to an effective safety system established years ago and designed to protect the public from health risks associated with the disease.

The report of a single cow in California this week confirmed to be infected with BSE has been met with a more reasonable response from media outlets than past cases of the disease. Who can forget the early 1990s when a massive BSE outbreak of the British cow herd affected the country’s food supply and was blamed for a number of human deaths? The incident sparked a worldwide panic over the disease as many thought it would spread to beef supplies the world over.

Granted, the cattle industry worldwide learned a great deal from that incident, namely how BSE was transmitted, what parts of the cow are affected, and the symptoms associated with the disease. This led to regulatory measures including the ban of feeding protein supplements to beef cattle that can spread the disease, measures requiring the removal of the brain and spinal column from every harvested cow, and careful monitoring of cattle for signs of neurological disorders before they enter the food system.

Since then these safeguards have been credited with all but eradicating threats from BSE, but not before the U.S. was hit by a wave of panic resulting from detection of its first case of a BSE-infected animal in Washington State in 2003. The reaction was swift and devastating to the U.S. cattle industry.  Beef prices plummeted; U.S. beef exports were banned by a number of countries, and consumers reacted by changing their eating habits and consuming less beef.

The California animal was diagnosed April 24 with a rare form of the disease called atypical BSE, which develops spontaneously and is not contracted through infected feed. This form of BSE is also consistent with an animal born after the feed ban according to USDA.

“This animal was never presented for slaughter for human consumption, so at no time presented a risk to the food supply, or to human health in the United States,” the USDA said in a statement this week. The animal was destroyed and USDA immediately began a search to identify any animals related to the infected cow.

USDA is reminding consumers that BSE isn’t spread through milk.

In all, only four cases of BSE have been reported in the U.S., including isolated cases in Washington State, Alabama, Texas and now California. But in modern times BSE has very nearly been eradicated from beef cattle not only in the U.S., but worldwide.  Seven years of surveillance data found the estimated prevalence of BSE in the United States to be less than one infected animal per one million adult cattle, and worldwide, the World Organization of Animal Health reports only 29 cases of BSE in 2011, a 99 percent reduction since the peak in 1992 of more than 37,000 cases.

"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. USDA has no reason to believe that any other U.S. animals are currently affected,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a statement Thursday.

“As the nation’s leading producer of cattle, Texas is closely following recent news from California regarding detection of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or BSE,” Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples stated in a press release this week. “It’s important for domestic consumers and foreign trading partners to note the animal did not enter into the food chain, and the American food supply is safe and has not been impacted by this recent detection. Thanks to a firewall of safeguards in place, American consumers can remain confident our food supply is the safest in the world, and Texas beef is as safe as ever.”

While a few media sources have attempted to overplay the news after detection of the infected animal this week, gone are the national headlines and the speculative reporting experienced in the 1990s, at least so far. The media frenzy, it seems, has been dampered by a rare and successful partnership between government, industry and scientific community cooperation that has served to educate consumers on the real issues associated with the risks of BSE and the safeguard of the U.S. food supply.

TAGS: Livestock
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