According to a three-year study by Harvard University’s Center for Risk Analysis, it is “extremely unlikely” that mad cow disease will turn up in American cattle.

“We found that if bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) were ever introduced, it would not become established,” said George Gray, lead researcher on the study. With the safeguards already in place, the disease would quickly die out and the potential for people to be exposed to infected cattle parts — brain and spinal cord tissue — that could transmit the disease is very low.

In the 550-page report, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Harvard researchers reviewed both European and U.S. animal health programs and meat processing systems to see if the U.S. was vulnerable to the disease. “As far as we know, all evidence is BSE is not in the United States,” said Gray.

America’s BSE-free status is not luck, said J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute (AMI). It is the result of our nation’s “triple firewall strategy.” Protections include: import controls that block the importation of meat and live animals from nations with BSE, feed controls that prevent the introduction of the disease into herds; and a surveillance program that is statistically designed to detect BSE in cattle with a degree of certainty if it were present.

Nevertheless, USDA plans to step up its BSE prevention and identification efforts. In response to the study, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said the department would double the number of cattle it tests for mad cow disease to more than 12,500 next year.

In addition, USDA plans to introduce new federal guidelines to reduce the potential for human exposure to the disease. The planned changes would ban meat processors from using bits of animal brains and spinal cord in human food and prohibit the use of air-injected pneumatic stunners when slaughtering cattle. AMI urged the meat industry to stop using the stunners four years ago due to the risk that the stunners could spread brain tissue.

Scientists believe the brain-wasting disease spreads among cattle when the spinal cord and brains of affected livestock are ground up for animal feed. The U.S. banned feeding such livestock feed in 1997.

In addition to these two changes, the USDA plans to consider tightening the rules for the disposal of dead livestock on farms and ranches.

“We cannot let down our guard, or reduce our vigilance,” said Veneman. “We must continue to strengthen these critical programs.”

It is important to remember, says AMI’s Boyle, “that because there is no evidence of BSE in the U.S., any product derived from American cattle is safe to eat.”

Reuters, PRNewswire