April 2010
From the State Vet's Office

BSE Testing in Alabama Takes a Break


In my column last month I discussed risk management. If any of you need to, you can go dig last month’s AFC Cooperative Farming News from the garbage and review the article. For the rest of you, I will give a brief review. Managing risk simply involves identifying hazards, evaluating the seriousness of the risk and then implementing steps to reduce risks to acceptable levels. It turns out the BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) surveillance program is at a point where we are evaluating exactly where we are and what is the exact role that testing serves in the complexity of dealing with a disease that has almost become extinct. The risks have certainly been reduced.

BSE has affected the beef industry sort of like falling off a cliff. It was kind of gradual on the way down; then all at once hit the ground. BSE barely made a ripple in the water in 1986 when the disease was first recognized in England. However, by 1993, the number of cases peaked in the United Kingdom at about 1,000 new cases a week. Eventually, there were around 184,000 cases from 35,000 farms in the U.K. By that time, the United States had implemented some regulations that kept the disease from becoming an issue here. Mainly, the United States banned live cattle from any country that had BSE in their cattle. The disease was on the radar screen, but was not much of an issue here.

In 1996, the England Ministry of Health made the statement that there was a casual link between the human disease variant CJD (vCJD) and BSE. Along with that announcement, there was speculation there would be tens of thousands of cases of vCJD in the next decade or two. We are about a decade and a half down the road from that announcement and the number of human vCJD cases was less than 200 a couple of years ago. I can’t find any extremely recent data on the numbers, but I doubt it is over 200. Nonetheless, BSE became a media disease taking on a life of its own.

The United States also began testing for the disease: 5,000 samples in 2001, 12,500 in 2002 and 20,000 in 2003. As we entered the last quarter of 2003, we planned to increase testing to 40,000 samples from what were considered to be true target animals in 2004. Target animals were considered to be those showing signs that could be consistent with BSE. In Alabama, we planned to participate in the surveillance program by encouraging producers to call us if they had a target animal (those down, disabled, with incoordination, staggering, wasting or dead of an unknown cause) that died on the farm. A Harvard University study showed, if we tested 40,000 target animals, we could have a 95 percent confidence level, if the disease was out there, we would find it.

On December 23, 2003, a Holstein from a dairy in the state of Washington tested positive. Even though the cow originated from Canada, many countries closed their borders to our cattle and beef. Never mind the cow was Canadian born, we suffered the effects of her residing here at the time of her demise. In my mind December 23, was a pivotal date in the history of the beef industry. Much like the cyanide in the Tylenol capsules in 1982 forever impacted the way over-the-counter drugs are packaged, after December 23, BSE will always be addressed in the way beef cattle are raised and beef is processed.

First, firewalls were put into place to reduce to near zero the possibility the infective agent could be passed on to consumers or to other cattle. Specified risk material (SRM) like brain, spinal cord, eyes and other bovine parts where the infective agent may be found are completely removed from the food chain. In cattle over 30 months, the entire spinal column including the vertebrae is removed. Think you can get a T-bone steak from a bovine over 30 months old? You can’t. There was also the discontinuation of using any ruminant by-products in ruminant feed.

The second move that followed shortly was to begin the Intensified BSE Testing Program in the early spring of 2004. In that program, we were to test 268,000 target animals for BSE. And, according to the folks at Harvard, we could have a 99 percent level of confidence that if there were BSE positive cows out there, we would find them. Sure enough, we did find two cows that were native United States residents. There was the one in Texas that hit the news about June of 2004 and the anonymous red cow from Alabama in March of 2006. Now, after more than three quarters of a million have been tested, there have only been those two.

So we have come to a point where we are taking a pause to evaluate what we need out of the surveillance program. How many target animals do we really need to test? The removal of SRMs has served to keep the food supply safe. The sampling will be continued for the purpose of making sure that if the disease is still out there, we will find it. Since about mid-February, we have taken a time-out and are not presently collecting brain samples. The program will probably start back in the future, but may have a smaller goal. We will likely need to continue to sample target animals to assure our own consumers and our trade partners we are making sure our beef products are safe. It is because of the participation and cooperation of the Alabama beef producers and the practicing veterinarians this program has been a success. I want to thank you for helping the program succeed to this point. As soon as we get word from the folks at USDA as to how the BSE testing will go forward, we will let you know.

As always we encourage you to contact your local veterinarian or our office if you have cattle showing any central nervous signs. Presently there is no funding to help with carcass disposal, but you need to rule out diseases like rabies or preventable diseases.