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NCBA and the Alabama Cattlemen’s 
Association Respond:


A single case of BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy), commonly known as mad cow disease, detected in a 6½-year-old dairy cow imported from Canada has thrown the U.S. cattle industry into turmoil. The news triggered the temporary loss of U.S. export markets, a change in the rules by USDA, and promises of legislative initiatives and hearings in Congress.

The infectious material from the index cow, central nervous system tissue such as brains and spinal cord, never entered the human food chain. BSE is found in central nervous system tissue, not muscle cuts. 

“The news media immediately picked up the story as the headline news all during the holidays, but our industry did a great job in getting out the factual information that kept consumer confidence in the safety of our beef supply extremely high,” stated Dr. Lee Alley, president of the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association. “Thank goodness the industry has a checkoff program that had a response plan right ready to implement,” continued Alley. 

“The media coverage of the BSE crisis was basically positive,” stated Billy Powell, Alabama Cattlemen’s Association (ACA) executive vice president. “Within hours of the USDA announcement on December 23, we implemented our BSE Crisis Management plan that checkoff dollars had allowed us to prepare and have ready for action,” said Powell. He continued, “In fact, just this past October, we held a media training workshop with a former CNN reporter for our leadership and ten members of the State Department of Agriculture staff – one scenario to react to was the first case of BSE found in the U.S. So you can see, we were ready – and it sure paid off.”

On January 6, USDA and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency jointly announced that DNA testing had confirmed that the cow’s herd of origin was Canadian. This means that the index cow in Washington was born prior to the 1997 U.S. and Canadian ban against feeding ruminant-derived protein to cattle. The United States put its ban in place in August of 1997 and Canada followed shortly thereafter. 

Contaminated ruminant-based feed is the source responsible for transmitting BSE. BSE is not contagious. Ron DeHaven, chief veterinary officer for USDA, said that “we have not yet had a native-born case of BSE in the United States.” He also added that given the integrated nature of the cattle industry, he sees this BSE as a North American issue, not simply a Canadian or American one. The BSE-infected Holstein cow was culled from its herd in Mabton, Wash., on Dec. 9. The cow was non-ambulatory at the time of slaughter. The infected cow was culled due to problems associated with calving. The cow was inspected twice by USDA veterinarians — once prior to slaughter and once after. In both exams it was determined that the injuries were consistent with birthing difficulty.

The cow was one of 20 animals processed that day. Two other non-ambulatory animals also were processed that day. The meat from all 20, totaling 10,140 pounds was recalled out of “an abundance of caution,” although the Food Safety Inspection Service said the risk from the meat was virtually zero. 

As part of the regular USDA surveillance for BSE, tissue from all three non-ambulatory animals was sent to the USDA laboratory in Ames, Iowa for testing. One tested positive for BSE. Following the presumptive positive results for the index cow, results were sent to an international laboratory in Weybridge, England for confirmation. Those results came back positive on Christmas Day.

USDA quickly identified that the infected cow came from a 4,000-head dairy operation covering two premises. Both were placed under quarantine.

On Dec. 27, USDA said that the primary line of its trace-back investigation led to Alberta, Canada where records show that the cow was importehttps://www.alafarmnews.com/files/0204archive/d into the u.s. in 2001. the index cow was one of 82 cows listed on a canadian health certificate used for export to the united states. usda had worked to locate the other cows in this shipment. 

USDA said that all 450 animals on the farm with the infected cow’s calf were depopulated because the calf wasn’t tagged at birth and it didn’t want to DNA test all 450 to identify it. An indemnity program based on fair market value is in place. Although science indicates there is little chance of transmitting BSE from a mother to its offspring, this step, also, was taken in “an abundance of caution.”

USDA said that it was far too early to draw any conclusions about the source of contaminated feed for this animal, especially given the integrated nature of the U.S. and Canadian markets.

NCBA has surveyed consumer attitudes about BSE regularly since 1996. On December 29 and 30, NCBA using checkoff dollars, conducted a special consumer attitude survey. The awareness of BSE went up significantly from 61% to 94%; however, the consumer confidence that our beef is safe increased slightly from 88% to 89%. Reports from supermarkets and restaurants indicated that beef demand remains strong. Another survey was in January with the consumer confidence in U.S. beef still very high at 89%. 

At press time, beef industry leaders are working with USDA officials to re-open the exports markets. The checkoff-funded promotional programs are being stepped up to continue promoting beef here in the U.S. Prices have rebounded and hopefully these measures will restore the strong calf prices that Alabama producers were anticipating for 2004.

Quick facts to know about BSE
(Published by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association in its Bulletin)

     The United States presents a low risk factor for BSE. Our testing level is 47 times the internationally recommended scientific standard. U.S. testing is based on if BSE exists at a prevalence of 1 in 1 million, there is a 95 percent confidence factor that we will find it based on current testing levels.

How do cattle contract BSE?

     It is believed cattle can contract the disease by consuming feed containing the BSE agent. The prevailing belief is the agent is a mutated protein molecule called a prion. If cattle have BSE, the disease causing agent is almost exclusively found in the brain and spinal cord and in retina tissue of infected cows. BSE has been determined to be spread as a result of feeding meat and bone meal containing brain and spinal cord from cattle with the disease. The U.S. has sought to prevent BSE through restrictions on importing cattle and feed ingredients capable of carrying the infectious agent from any country suspected of having the disease, or at risk to have the disease.


     • BSE is an animal health issue, not a food safety issue.
     • The United States in 1989 banned the importation of live cattle and feed from any country with identified cases of BSE. That was expanded in 1997 to include all European countries, whether or not BSE had been found there.
     • BSE is not contagious. It is transmitted by consuming contaminated ruminant-derived protein feeds. This has been banned in the United States since August 1997.
     • The United States began testing for BSE in 1990. It was the first country to do so even though it did not have the disease. In each of the last two years, the United States has tested 20,000+ animals for BSE. In 2000, that number was 11,954. Prior to the incident in Washington state, the United States had planned to test 38,000 animals in 2004. U.S. testing levels have exceeded what is recommended by international standards.
     • Testing focuses especially on animals considered at the greatest risk, those 30 months of age and older who exhibit behavior that could be caused by neurological disease, and non-ambulatory animals.

BSE Testing

     In each of the past two years, USDA has tested 20,000 plus animals for BSE. Based on the low risk factor the United States presents for BSE, this testing is 47 times the internationally recommended amount of testing. U.S. testing is done based on if BSE exists at a prevalence of 1 in 1 million, there is a 95 percent confidence factor that we will find it based on current testing.

     Prior to the Dec. 23 incident, USDA had planned to test 38,000 animals in 2004. As it is looking to strengthen our response to this disease, it is considering using a rapid screen test for initial confirmation. Currently USDA uses an immunohistochemistry test, which is considered the “gold standard.”

     According to an independent study conducted by the Harvard University Center for Risk Analysis, the U.S. is robust against the spread of BSE to animals or humans thanks to the preventative measures already in place.

Information About Feed Sources

Poultry Litter

     Although processed poultry litter has been used for more than 30 years and has been shown to be safe as a nutrient supplement in cattle feed, NCBA policy encourages cattle producers to seek alternatives to poultry litter as cattle feed. 

Blood infectivity

     Extensive research to date has not found that bovine blood is infective. As a result, the Food and Drug Administration does not classify blood meal, a high source of protein, as a prohibited material for animal feed.



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Date Last Updated January, 2006