Years ago, the fear of mad cow disease negatively impacted the beef industry from domestic consumption to exports. It took a while for beef to regain its place at many dinner tables.
Mad cow disease — Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy — is scary on all fronts. It has a long incubation period of up to eight years, is incurable and humans can contract the illness, which is invariably fatal, if they eat meat from infected cattle.
The type of beef you eat also matters. Tyson Foods, the second-largest beef producer in the U.S., noted that it “stringently adhere(s) to government requirements to remove the materials that can carry the BSE agent, such as the brain and spinal cord from mature beef cattle. Consumers should be reminded that the BSE agent is not contained in beef muscle such as cuts like steaks, roasts and hamburger.”
When a case of BSE was first discovered in the United State in 2003, our top beef importer, Japan, went from a $1.4 billion customer that year to zero for the next two. Last month’s discovery of an infected cow in California didn’t result in a similar crippling blow — major importers of U.S. beef, including Japan, said the discovery won’t impact their import plans — but it did prompt smaller markets South Korea and Indonesia to cut out U.S. imports.
The good news is that the 10-year-old cow that contracted the illness — the fourth known case in the United States — was discovered and never entered the food market. After it was euthanized, it was sent to a California rendering plant, where random testing happened to be conducted on the same day. That was fortunate, since the U.S. Department of Agriculture annually checks about 40,000 of the 35 million cattle that are slaughtered each year for BSE, which comes to just over 0.1 percent of all slaughtered cattle — about one out of every 1,000.
An offspring of the infected cow was tracked down in another state, killed and tested for BSE (there is no live test for the disease), which officials said was negative, adding to the thought that the illness was atypical BSE that spontaneously develops in one out of a million cows. Two of the previous three cases of mad cow disease found in the U.S. fell into that atypical form. Federal officials also are investigating the calf ranch where the diseased cow was raised and are looking for cattle that were raised with the infected cow for testing.
The incident was something the industry, which has just dealt with the “pink slime” issue and the thinning of herds in last year’s drought, could have done without. Like any industry, its success lies in consumer confidence in its products.
One thing that could help would be to close a regulatory loophole that has the potential to allow undesired consequences. BSE is contracted from cows eating other sick cattle that have been rendered into protein supplements, something that the U.S. has outlawed.
Rendered cattle is, however, fed to poultry, which is reasonable since poultry cannot contract BSE. The problem is that the droppings from those chickens and spilled feed are collected and rendered back into feed — feed that can be used for cattle feed. In this investigation, even though it may well be an atypical case not connected to feed, federal and California officials are having to check feed records of the dairy where the infected cow was found and at least 10 suppliers because the possibility exists.
Closing that lone avenue of possible contamination would be one more way to instill more confidence in consumers that the beef they’re eating is safe.