There is an old saying, "Don’t look for something if you don’t want to find it." I suppose that makes a fair amount of sense, but I have actually spent the better part of the last couple of decades doing just that - looking for diseases I do not want to find. A great deal of the responsibility of the office of the State Veterinarian is to carry out surveillance activities for diseases such as avian influenza, brucellosis, bovine tuberculosis, mycoplasma, BSE and a bunch of others. It should go without saying that it is not our desire to find any of these diseases. However, if they are out there in Alabama, we want to know it so we can quickly respond to them. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy is one of those diseases we spend a lot of time and effort looking for in order to be able to export beef to many of our foreign trading partners.
BSE was first diagnosed in 1986 in the United Kingdom. Most of the cases occurred there, although there have been cases in many countries around the world including the United States where three cases were diagnosed between 2003 and 2006. (The 2003 case is why I gave the column the title "BSE: Ten Years Later." I will refer to some events going back farther than 10 years, but I liked the title.) Anyway, the disease emerging in cattle took on a much higher level of significance in 1996. That was the year with escalating numbers of BSE cases as well as a rise in the number of variant CJD cases. (Variant CJD is the disease thought to come from consuming products from BSE-infected cattle. These encephalopathies are caused by prions that are rogue proteins accumulating in the brain, not a virus causing a rabid, zombie person as portrayed by Hollywood.) Sometime in 1996, U.K. health officials announced a likely link between BSE and the human disease. At that point, the worldwide cattle community began taking certain steps to look for the disease.
Here in the United States, all cattle imported from the United Kingdom were located and quarantined so they would not make it into the food chain. Additionally, we began looking for the disease. As we worked our way through the late 1990s and early 2000s, we began testing about 20,000 bovine brain samples annually for BSE. In about the middle of 2003, our worldwide trading partners told us we were not testing enough cattle. They believed we had the disease, but were not looking for it hard enough. So, in an effort to accommodate those concerns, in October 2003, we, along with the rest of the United States, put a plan together to get 40,000 samples annually. According to people at Harvard, that would give us a 95 percent confidence level that, if the disease existed at a level of one case per 1 million head of cattle, we would find it.
That brings us to 10 years ago. In fact, I hate to admit it in writing because I am about 10 days late in writing this column, but it was 10 years ago today that forever changed the beef industry here in the United States. It was December 23, 2003, when it was announced that a dairy cow from Washington State had tested positive for BSE, making it the first to be found in the United States. The early response was swift and negative to put it mildly. The cattle market dropped like a lead balloon and foreign markets closed their doors to U.S. beef. The cost to the beef industry was in the billions of dollars by the time the smoke cleared. The event that garnered wall-to-wall news coverage was referred to as "The Cow that Stole Christmas."
Response from our side, that being the government regulatory agencies, was equally as swift in putting firewalls in place to reduce the chances of allowing the possibility of BSE-infected material getting into the food chain to about as close to zero as could be possible. Immediately, ruminant-source protein was banned from cattle feed. Specified Risk Material - animal tissue where the causative agent for BSE could be found - was banned from the food chain, and that even included pet food. And the level of testing went from 40,000 samples annually to, well, as many as we could collect. I know that by 2006 we had collected about a million samples nationally.
The increased testing did yield two more cases of BSE in the United States. One was from Texas and the other was from Alabama. Having a positive BSE cow from your state is not something I would wish on a state veterinarian I didn’t like, but, in some kind of odd way, I believe our Department of Agriculture, USDA Veterinary Services and the beef industry in the state did benefit from having to deal with the positive case here. We all had to be on the same page so far as making sure the public was given accurate information. I worked closely with our USDA veterinarians as we conducted work to trace the cow to the farm of origin. We constantly were in contact with the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association and the Alabama Farmers Federation. We worked long days, nights and weekends to try to find the farm of origin of a red cow with no form of identification. Just as a side bar, that incident figured prominently in magnifying the need for an animal disease traceability program.
When we completed our work and the dust settled, we were able to tell the consumer that the process worked. Our work to find BSE had made certain the animal never reached the food chain. But, even if a cow is never tested and makes it to processing, the firewalls put into place also make sure that possible infected material never reaches the food chain. That event confirmed the system that is in place does work. The degree of working together and educating the public about BSE has been a bright spot in an otherwise bad situation.
Sometime around 2007, we went back to testing at the 40,000 per year level. Actually, I believe we average just over 42 or 43 thousand samples annually in the United States. From those, about 1,100 per year come from Alabama. That includes samples collected by government personnel, state and federal, and by private practicing veterinarians. We continue to test at that level to satisfy the export market as well as to let the American consumer know, if the disease is out there at a level of one-in-a-million, we have a 95 percent confidence level that we will find it.
As we look at diseases Alabama has waved good-bye to such as bovine and porcine brucellosis, we believe we are watching BSE ride off into the sunset. We continue to test for it as well as for scrapie in sheep and goats, and Chronic Wasting Disease in deer. Scrapie and Chronic Wasting Disease are cousins of BSE. Certainly those have not been eradicated from the globe, but they become less and less of a threat to the animal community and certainly to consumer confidence because we continue to look for something we do not want to find.
Dr. Tony Frazier is the State Veterinarian for Alabama.