April 2006
From the State Vet's Office

BSE Found in Alabama, The System is Working

by Dr. Tony Frazier

Sometimes I have to choose between two or three topics that are timely and beneficial for this column. This month the subject of BSE being found in the State of Alabama demands to be the center of attention.

Since beginning our partnership with our USDA counterparts in the BSE Surveillance Program in late 2003, and then the Enhanced BSE Surveillance Program that began in June of 2004, one of the goals has been to find the disease, if existed and find the prevalence, or rate at which the disease occurs.

Since last June, when a cow in Texas became the first United States born cow to be diagnosed as BSE positive, we have known that there could be an occasional positive cow found, however rare that might be. What we did not know is that the second cow would be found in Alabama. The fact that this cow was sampled with the result of a positive diagnosis shows that the BSE Surveillance Program is working.

On Saturday, March 11, I was notified by the USDA that a cow from Alabama had tested inconclusive on the rapid screening test at a USDA contract laboratory in Athens, Georgia. The sample was then sent to the National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa, for a confirmatory test called the Western Blot test. The results were announced to us and the rest of the world on Monday, March 13.

The animal had been seen by a local veterinarian because she had become nonambulatory (unable to move about). She was apparently ten years or older. She was treated and did not respond, so she was later humanely euthanized and sampled. The animal was then buried on the farm and did not enter the human or animal food chain. Early reports indicate that the animal had been on the farm where she died for less than a year. At the time of this writing, there is an on-going investigation to locate off-spring and first co-horts.

Since June of 2004, there have been nearly 2700 samples collected from cows that have died on farms in Alabama which are target animals for BSE. That number of samples from Alabama have gone with those from all the other states to make up the over 640,000 samples collected in the United States in less than 2 years.

This program has been necessary to substantiate that we are indeed a low risk country for BSE. That fact is important in our exporting of beef to other countries. We are very appreciative of the fact that Alabama cattle producers have participated in the surveillance program on a voluntary basis. Again, I will emphasize that our trading partners require a BSE Surveillance Program for their continued trade with us.

Along with the testing program, in early 2004, in response to the positive BSE cow in Washington State that originated from Canada, USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service took measures to make sure that Specified Risk Material (SRMs) are removed from all cattle over thirty months of age that are slaughtered. SRMs include the brain, spinal column, retinas, and the entire small intestine. These are the tissues in which the prion that causes BSE could be found. It is accepted that animals under thirty months of age do not get the disease; therefore, the SRMs only become a concern after the animal reaches 30 months. Also, downer cows were no longer allowed to be slaughtered and enter the human food chain. And finally, if an animal is tested, before the meat or by-products enter either the human food chain or are rendered for animal food, the carcass is held until the test comes back negative. These measures were in addition to measures put in place during the latter part of the twentieth century, including banning the import of cattle from countries known to have BSE and the banning of ruminant by-products in cattle feed. With these firewalls in place, there is every reason for consumers to be confident that the beef they buy is safe, wholesome, and nutritious.

Also, because of the nature of this disease, no threat is posed to other cattle in the herd where she had resided over the past few months. BSE is not contagious from cow-to-cow, and considering her age she was likely infected by eating contaminated feed before the 1997 ban of feeding ruminant by-products to other ruminants.

We are working closely with the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association, the Alabama Farmers Federation, the Alabama Department of Public Health, the USDA Veterinary Services, and others to make sure that accurate information is being provided to the public and that all standard protocols are followed. We continue to work to make sure that the food supply in the United States is the safest in the world and that the health of the livestock and poultry in Alabama are protected.