Mad cow disease corralling continues in northwest



WASHINGTON D.C.—North America continues to grapple with a food safety problem that turned Europe upside-down nearly three years ago: Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), a.k.a. mad cow disease.

At press time, investigators from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had located four more animals in Washington state from a herd of 81 cows that came from Canada. So far, 23 of the 81 cows have been found.

On Dec 23, the USDA announced that the first U.S. case of mad cow disease had been discovered in a Holstein from a dairy farm herd in Washington state. A recall of beef from that cow sparked a beef recall in eight states and in the U.S. territory of Guam. Also, authorities subsequently slaughtered 129 cows from the Sunny Dene Ranch and ordered them tested for the brain-wasting disease.

So far, the USDA says, 30 samples from the destroyed cows have been tested, and all were negative. Of the 23 Canadian cows, 10 were found at a Mabton, Wash., ranch, three were from a Tenino, Wash., facility, six were found at a farm in Connell, Wash., one was located at a dairy farm in Quincy, Wash., while another three were found at a farm in Mattawa, Wash.

Cows culled from the Mattawa farm, in addition to three known to be from Canada, were killed "in the abundance of caution, to ensure the safety of the food supply and U.S. beef," Nolan Lemon, a USDA spokesman in Yakima told KOMO-TV.

Lemon explained that animals that cannot be excluded from the possibility they were part of the 81—namely, because ear identification tags may have fallen off—are considered a potential risk and will be euthanized as well.

Mad cow disease is a public health concern because humans can get a related illness variant, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, from eating contaminated meat that contains tissue from infected animals—specifically, from the brain and spinal cord, according to Donna Gilson, a trade and consumer protection spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture in an interview with The Associated Press.

In addition to culling animals and instituting beef recalls, the USDA has unveiled additional protection food supply safety measures regarding:

  • Downer animals: USDA will ban all downer, sick or injured, cattle from the human food chain.
  • Product holding: USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) inspectors will no longer mark cattle tested for BSE as "inspected and passed" until confirmation is received that the animals have tested negative for BSE.
  • Specified risk material: USDA will enhance its regulations by declaring as specified risk materials skull, brain, trigeminal ganglia, eyes, vertebral column, spinal cord and dorsal root ganglia of cattle over 30 months of age, and the small intestine of cattle of all ages, thus prohibiting their use in the human food supply.
  • Advanced meat recovery (AMR): The industrial technology removes muscle tissue from the bone of beef carcasses under high pressure without incorporating bone material. AMR product can be labeled as "meat."
  • Air-injection stunning: To ensure that portions of the brain are not dislocated into the tissues of the carcass as a consequence of humanely stunning cattle during the slaughter process, FSIS is issuing a regulation to ban the practice of air-injection stunning.
  • Mechanically separated meat. USDA will prohibit use of mechanically separated meat in human food.

"Our aggressive response has helped to protect food safety and public health and to help maintain consumer confidence," said Ann M. Veneman, secretary of agriculture, during a recent press conference, flanked by Canadian and Mexican agriculture officials.

And the guidance could not have come at a better time, as more than 30 countries, including Japan—the single largest market for U.S. beef—banned the import of U.S. beef products after the mad cow announcement. That ban left 10 percent of U.S. beef without a market.

"It is also critical that we have a consistent trade environment on this continent," Veneman adds. "We have already begun a process to enhance coordination of our approach to BSE. This summer Mexico, Canada and the U.S. worked together to encourage the World Organization for Animal Health—what we commonly refer to as the OIE—to develop a practical risk-based guidance on BSE issues that impact international trade."