Eyes on US BSE case

A case of the cattle brain disease bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was diagnosed in a cow in the US in April, holding global meat industry attention, but producing cautious response to date.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that as part of its targeted surveillance system, its Animal and Plant Inspection Service had confirmed a case of BSE in a dairy cow from central California, the first such case since 2006. USDA chief veterinary office John Clifford confirmed that it was never presented for slaughter for human consumption, so at no time presented a risk to the food supply or human health.

Clifford said tests, using immunohistochemistry and western blot tests, “confirmed that the animal was positive for atypical BSE.” Atypical BSE is a rare form of the disease that appears to occur spontaneously. It is different from classical BSE, which is associated with the consumption of ruminant protein.

The US industry leapt into action to reassure markets and consumers that the beef and dairy in the American food supply is safe with US agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack saying that USDA remained confident in the health of US cattle.

When BSE was discovered in animal in 2003, it had a major impact on the US beef industry, as a number of countries banned imports of beef from the US, including Japan and Korea, which had been major US markets.

According to the US International Trade Commission, losses to the industry ranged from $US2.5 billion to $US3.1 billion annually from 2004 through 2007.

Although most markets slowly re-opened their borders, many still impose restrictions on US and Canadian beef. For example, Japan only allows imports of U.S. beef from cattle aged 20 months or less, but its Food Safety Commission is assessing the risk of easing the limit to 30 months.

So far, the response from other countries to the current case has been cautious. Only one country, Indonesia, has banned all US beef imports and, while two major South Korean retailers were reported to have suspended sales of US beef immediately following the announcement, at the time of writing one has since resumed sales.

 Published in Food NZ (June/July 2012).

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