The first positive case of bse in the U.S. has brought new rules to the livestock industry. These rule changes, which were designed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to increase the security of the nation’s food supply, have created new challenges for all of us in the dairy industry.

Even prior to this positive case, USDA had announced plans to increase the number of animals tested for BSE. However, the ban that prevents all nonambulatory or downer animals from going to slaughter has changed where animals will be tested. Success of any surveillance programs will now hinge on producers, veterinarians and regulatory officials working together.

The new rules

Here’s a quick list of the new rules:

  • Non-ambulatory animals have been banned from entering the human food supply. 
  • Meat products from any tested animals must be held until the results are known.
  • Air-injection stunning of cattle has been prohibited.
  • The 1997 ruminant-feed ban has been strengthened, including elimination of an exemption that allowed mammalian blood and blood products collected at slaughter to be fed to other ruminants as a protein source. And, “poultry litter” and “plate waste” can no longer be used as feed ingredients for ruminants. Plate waste consists of uneaten meat or meat scraps collected from restaurants and rendered into meat-and-bone meal.

The ban on nonambulatory animals does not make a distinction between animals that are “sick” and ones that have been “injured.”   Sick animals should never be allowed to enter the human food supply, but down cattle from an obvious injury pose a minimum of risk to the consumer. Eliminating all downer cattle is a conservative stance by USDA, but understandable to ensure consumer confidence in our food supply.

Your role

Each producer, working with his or her veterinarian, needs to address these policy changes. At a minimum, the sick-cow area and the freshening pens need increased attention. Cows that are at risk to become nonambulatory may need special care, or else should be culled earlier. Obviously, these changes may affect your herd’s cull rate and the number of replacements needed to maintain desired herd size.

Most importantly, your participation will be needed to test nonambulatory cows for BSE.   Ron DeHaven, USDA’s chief veterinarian, has stated that “nonambulatory animals are the population at highest risk, and, therefore, the group that we want to continue to focus our surveillance on.”  Adequate test samples are needed to develop surveillance data with confidence.

Many states are developing testing programs to encourage producers to contact their veterinarian, state regulatory officials, or veterinary diagnostic laboratories to test downer cows. Some are even paying a small fee for the samples to encourage testing. USDA also is encouraging cattle veterinarians to sample these cattle if found on farm or whenever necropsies are performed. No blood test is currently available to test for BSE. Brain tissue must be harvested instead.

The federal government has budgeted funds to help state agencies cover these additional costs, and hopefully reimburse some direct expenses of the producer and practitioner. However, nothing I have seen says anything about covering loss of the animal.

Ensuring the safety of our food supply is the responsibility of all of us involved in the production animal industry.   Contact your state or area federal veterinarian for more information on these new federal policies and testing programs. Your participation is needed to prove that this one positive case is an isolated incident.

Jim Brett is a practicing veterinarian in Montezuma, Ga.