Commentary: Bye, bye BSE?

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Earlier this week, USDA confirmed the identification of a dairy cow in California that was infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy. John Clifford, USDA Chief Veterinary Officer, announced that the animal was discovered as part of the agency’s targeted surveillance system.

The carcass of the infected animal is being held under state authority at a rendering plant in California and will be destroyed, Clifford said. It never entered the human food supply, and at no time presented a risk to consumers. Additionally, milk does not transmit BSE, he added.

“Evidence shows that our systems and safeguards to prevent BSE are working, as are similar actions taken by countries around the world,” Clifford said, noting that 2011, there were only 29 cases of BSE worldwide, a 99% reduction since the 1992 peak when more than 37,000 were confirmed.

“This is directly attributable to the impact and effectiveness of feed bans as a primary control measure for the disease,” he said.

Even before the discovery of the first BSE-positive animal in 2003 (although that dairy cow had been born in Canada), the United States had safeguards in place to protect people and animals against BSE. After 2003, those measures were stepped up to include mandatory removal of specified risk materials—mainly the brain tissue and spinal cord—from the food supply; a ban on processing non-ambulatory cattle for human consumption; and an FDA ban on ruminant-derived material being used in cattle feed.

Samples from the latest BSE cow, the fourth domestic confirmation of a U.S. animal with so-called mad cow disease, were tested at the National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Ames, Iowa. Interestingly, the results confirmed that the animal was positive for atypical BSE, a rare form of the disease not generally associated with an animal consuming infected feed.

The sounds of silence

Thus far, all the official procedures and proclamations have been similar to what has occurred previously—with one gigantic exception: A virtual absence of an emotional overreaction by both anti-industry activists and major media.

What has surfaced instead is a question, technical in nature, about the larger meaning of the discovery—minus the “we’re all going to die” hysteria.

For example, Reuters’ news story wondered whether the BSE discovery was “a validation of a decade-long focused surveillance regime, or a lucky break that highlights the need to revisit previously scrapped efforts for more comprehensive surveillance.”

That kind of thoughtful analysis was virtually non-existent eight years ago when the initial panic over the BSE threat to U.S. beef first peaked. As someone whose job at the time involved trying to educate media members about the nature of the previously unknown prions responsible for the disease (cows are highly susceptible; people are not) and explain the mathematical basis of surveillance (as opposed to the universal testing activists were demanding), I can assure you that most of my efforts were in vain.

No matter how many times I’d try to make the analogy that narrowing BSE sampling to the most susceptible population of cattle (older dairy cows) exponentially magnified the accuracy of the results beyond raw numbers, it fell on deaf ears. The argument that you wouldn’t proceed with testing the entire population for early signs of Alzheimer’s—like BSE, a disease of old age—because that would be a waste of time and money never seemed to connect, even with journalists who were supposed to be top-notch ag reporters and food writers.

Back then, we tried to sell the notion that the incidence of BSE was literally “one in a million”—which it was—as a way of reassuring people that the risk to human health was incredibly remote. For the most part, the result was no sale.

Now, you not only have mainstream media asking whether the discovery of the BSE cow was “a stroke of luck or the result of a rigorous detection system,” but the only vocal objections are coming from politicians with a larger agenda.

“[The] announcement of the fourth case of BSE in the United States clearly highlights the need for a comprehensive national animal identification system,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the senior Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the USDA.

It’s tough to deny that assertion. Despite protests from many producers, had such a system been in place 10 years ago, much of the drawn-out drama of that first BSE-positive case in Washington state would have been mitigated. As the days dragged while officials attempted to determine that cow’s origins back then, it was easy to inflame speculation of a potentially massive outbreak among thousands of animals, since nobody really knew which herds the infected animal has been part of, and where exactly it had been sold.

“We were lucky to identify this case,” DeLauro added in her statement.

That’s debatable, and the speed with which USDA was able to isolate the animal, conduct confirmatory tests and announce the atypical nature of the case—plus the distinct lack of restrictions on beef exports under international animal health regulations—combined to mute media concerns and silence critics who formerly gained traction with lurid speculation about an alleged “epidemic” of mad cow infecting the U.S. beef supply.

Given the lack of shock value associated with this latest BSE case, I think the appropriate question isn’t whether our surveillance protocols and preventive firewalls make us lucky or good, but whether as a nation we’ve gained a more mature understanding of the actual risks posed by mad cow, or whether we’re just bored of the subject altogether.

Unfortunately, I have to side with the latter explanation.

But given the history of the attacks on the beef industry for its alleged “failure” to prevent BSE from occurring, I’ll take it.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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