BSE – Some Facts for Consumers

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Consumers have had grave concerns about BSE in their food supply, and the recent announcement of a positive animal has ignited much debate about the safety of our food supply. Here are the facts about this disease and the safeguards within the beef industry.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced a positive test result on April 24, 2012, as part of its targeted surveillance program to test cattle for Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE). USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has confirmed the nation’s fourth case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in a dairy cow from central California. According to USDA, the carcass of the animal is being held under State authority at a rendering facility in California and will be destroyed. It was never presented for slaughter for human consumption, so at no time presented a risk to the food supply or human health.

The bottom line for consumers remains the same: all U.S. beef is safe. The BSE agent is not found in meat like steaks and roasts. It is only found in central nervous system tissue such as brain and spinal cord. Experts in human and animal health agree that U.S. beef is safe from BSE because of the multiple interlocking safeguards and progressive steps taken by the U.S. government over the past two decades. The world’s leading scientists, medical professionals and government officials agree that BSE is not a public or animal health risk in the United States. Through collaboration between the beef community, government and leading scientists, we have been successful in implementing and maintaining science-based measures to prevent and reduce the spread of BSE in the United States. USDA’s ongoing BSE surveillance program tests approximately 40,000 high-risk cattle annually, bringing the total of tested animals to more than 1 million since the program began. A scientific analysis of seven years of surveillance data found the estimated prevalence of BSE in the United States to be less than one infected animal per 1 million adult cattle. BSE is not a contagious disease, and the already low risk in this country, coupled with an effective feed ban supports the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis projections that, if BSE currently exists in the United States, it is extremely rare.

BSE is fast approaching eradication worldwide—according to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), the leading international body for animal health, there were only 29 cases of BSE worldwide in 2011, which is a 99 percent reduction since the peak in 1992 at more than 37,300 cases. This is only the fourth case of BSE in the United States, compared to more than 37,000 cases in the United Kingdom alone during peak occurrence in 1992. In May 2007, OIE designated the United States a ‘controlled BSE risk’ country in recognition of these strong prevention measures.

The United States started taking preventative steps against BSE in 1989. BSE is not a risk in this country because significant actions were taken well before there was an opportunity for this disease to take hold. BSE can only be spread through contaminated feed and, in 1997, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), with the full support of the beef industry, banned from cattle feed such protein supplements that could spread BSE.

USDA Public Health Veterinarians examine every single animal before processing and condemn those with any signs of illness. Animals most likely to have BSE are older animals, either unable to walk, or showing signs of neurological disease. Such animals are banned from the human food supply. The strong BSE measures we have in place in the United States apply to all beef produced in this country. All beef, regardless of whether it is organic, natural or conventionally raised, is safe. No cattle in the United States can legally be fed animal by-products that could spread BSE. The BSE surveillance program in the United States is designed to detect the disease even if the prevalence rate is as low as one case per 1 million adult cattle. The BSE risk in this country is so low, in part, because of a progressive series of strong actions taken by the U.S. government. Actions such as removal of materials that would most likely carry BSE, banning animals that show signs of the neurological disease and the effective feed ban ensure the very low risk of BSE in the United States.

This most recent firewall established by USDA mandates removal from the food supply material that would most likely carry the BSE agent (such as brain and spinal cord). This process happens every day with every animal to ensure this diminishing disease has no affect on public health. BSE infectivity exists primarily in nervous system tissues such as the spinal cord and brain of older animals with this rare disease, and USDA mandates that these materials be removed prior to processing. In 2003, USDA strengthened its food safety program by banning from the human food supply, any cattle that are unable to walk or show signs of possible neurological disease. In 1997, the FDA banned feeding ruminant-derived protein to cattle. This feed ban breaks the cycle of BSE.

Dogs, birds, reptiles and horses are not known to be susceptible to the infectious agent that causes BSE in cattle. However, cats are susceptible. Approximately 90 cats in the UK and several cats in other European countries were diagnosed with the feline version of BSE, or FSE. Currently in the U.S., some animal products that are prohibited from cattle feed are acceptable for use in pet food. Such products include meat and bone meal, for example. However, FDA believes that the safeguards it has put into place (i.e. ruminant feed rule) to prevent BSE in the U.S. have also protected cats. To date, no case of FSE has been found in the U.S. FDA continues to review these safeguards to be sure they are adequate.

In summary, the US remains at a low risk for BSE; largely due to the timeliness and implementation of our control programs and the cooperation of all elements of the US beef industry. So while we did have a positive test on an animal, we did however, catch it with the safeguards we have in place. In the mean time, US beef remains safe to eat and consumers should feel confident in their food safety when eating US beef and beef products.

To learn more about BSE, information can found at the following Web sites:

Food and Drug Administration

U.S. Department of Agriculture

Beef Industry Scientific Panel Information Resource
Damon Pollard
Extension Agent