BSE case shows system works

Monday, December 29, 2003

Like the threat of terrorism, the effects of the discovery of "mad cow" disease in an old dairy cow in Washington have the potential to create disruption far beyond what the facts warrant.

If there is anything we should have learned from the terrorism attacks of the past and present threats, however, it's that we should not panic in the face of a threat.

In the case of BSE -- bovine spongiform encephalopathy -- there is even less reason to radically change our behavior.

Yes, BSE is a horrible disease which has killed about 100 in England, where it spread to the cattle herd before authorities knew how to keep it under control.

Ironically, it's the proactive, effective system America has put in place that has created the current situation.

The United States began a surveillance program for BSE in 1990, the first country without the disease to do so. All cattle, with any signs of neurological disorder, as well as those over 30 months of age and animals that cannot walk are kept under observation.

Imports of cattle and bovine products from countries with BSE were banned in 1989.

As the Nebraska Cattlemen point out, the only way the disease spreads is through contaminated feed. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the feeding of ruminant-derived meat and bone meal supplement in 1997, a year after producers initiated a voluntary ban.

Authorties say the Washington cow, if it is indeed infected, may have picked up BSE in her younger years, before the ban was initiated. In fact, they say, no BSE has been detected in cattle under 30 months of age, which is where virtually all of our meat supply comes from.

And, the best current science indicates that BSE is not found in muscle meats like steaks and roasts. When cows contract the disease, it is found only in the central nervous system, which does not enter the food chain -- including materials from the Washington cow.

Thanks to high consumer demand, the cattle industry has been one of the bright spots in the American economy, especially in rural Nebraska and Kansas. If American consumers remain calm and listen to the facts, there is no need for the industry to suffer.

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