We received a thoughtful letter from a dairy producer in east central Minnesota. He pointed to an apparent loophole in the government’s response plan to Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), following the first diagnosed case in the United States last December.

Had the cow with BSE been euthanized on farm instead of going to the slaughter plant, “we never would have known about the case,” he said. With the subsequent ban on downer cows at slaughter plants, “it will keep us in the dark as to how widespread of a problem this is,” he added.

He is right. By banning downer cattle from the human-food supply, the federal government cut off a main source of animals for BSE testing and surveillance. After all, many of the animals tested were those showing up at the slaughter plant too sick or injured to walk. Now, these animals aren’t showing up at all.    

“What’s the problem?” you ask. “Downer cows have been cut off from the human-food chain — isn’t that ultimately the best form of prevention?”

Yes, it’s good that downer cows have been banned from slaughter plants. But, the surveillance system needs to be extended in this case — beyond the slaughter plant — in order to assure the public that   more cases of BSE do not exist.

Sensing this very thing, the state of Mississippi has initiated a program to pay producers for brain samples collected from cows that are euthanized or die on farm. It could cost the state up to $100,000 this year, says Mississippi state veterinarian Jim Watson, but it’s worth it. The program “has gone a long way to reassure consumers in our state that we have a good handle on disease status,” he says.

Mississippi’s program is a good model for states everywhere, although some tweaking may be necessary. For one thing, the incentive paid to producers in Mississippi — $50 for each brain sample — is too low. A higher incentive would increase participation and help compensate producers for their time and effort.   

On the national level, USDA says it still plans to test:

•   Non-ambulatory animals that show signs of central-nervous-system disorders.

•   Animals that die on farm for no apparent reason.

 

It’s still not clear how the government intends to accomplish this other than relying on producers and their veterinarians to volunteer this information — without any kind of financial incentive.

Every effort should be made to maintain consumer confidence. A proactive, incentive-based program to test suspicious downer cattle would do just that and assure the public that livestock producers and government regulators are doing their best to stay on top of things.