The USDA confirmed Tuesday that the nation’s fourth-ever case of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), has been discovered in a California dairy cow. The disease was discovered after workers selected the cow for random testing as per the USDA’s BSE surveillance program. The animal’s carcass is currently being held under state authority and will be destroyed. The confirmation of mad cow has ignited discussion about public health and has many veterinary and government officials scrambling to assuage fears about the potentially fatal disease.
Since 1990, the USDA has conducted a science-based surveillance program to detect mad cow disease, testing roughly 40,000 cows a year. The first case of a BSE positive cow was discovered in 2003, at which time the USDA increased testing from 40,000 cows annually to 375,000. After eighteen months, however, the USDA curtailed testing back to the original 40,000. The surveillance program allows detection at a level of only one case for every one million adult cattle. While these numbers sound shockingly low, they exceed the recommended testing levels assigned to the US by the World Organization for Animal Health’s (OIE).
Despite the fact that mad cow is potentially lethal for humans who consume contaminated beef, USDA Chief Veterinary Officer John Clifford assured the public that all U.S. meat and dairy supplies are safe, noting the cow “was never presented for slaughter for human consumption” so it “at no time presented a risk to the food supply or human health.” Clifford further noted that “milk does not transmit BSE,” despite the fact that some dairy cows are slaughtered for food.
Vanderbilt University’s chair of preventive medicine also weighed in, arguing it would be unlikely that more cows would contract the disease, noting it occurs “rarely and sporadically” in both humans and animals.
In addition to the impact another confirmed case of mad cow may have on beef sales, analysts fear there may be trade repercussions. According to the Wall Street Journal, “the biggest risk to the beef market from a confirmed case would be if large international beef customers such as Japan and South Korea were to impose a temporary ban, but they said that new bans were unlikely if the animal was kept out of the food chain.”
According to a statement released by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, “The bottom line remains the same – all U.S. beef is safe.” However, it takes roughly 15 years for a human to exhibit signs of mad cow disease, thus once a person shows signs, it is entirely too late to eliminate the source in the food system. CNN’s Elizabeth Cohen puts it plainly, saying “If even one person ate U.S. meat and got sick from mad cow disease, it would just be devastating.”
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