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The aftermath of BSE

Just more than a month ago, the cattle industry faced one of its biggest nightmares and survived the initial impact. The announcement that one cow from a Washington state dairy had bovine spongiform encephalophy (BSE, or mad cow disease) rocked the beef industry and beef consumers. But well-laid response plans by USDA and cattle industry officials quickly headed off widespread consumer concerns.

Now beef, dairy and pork producers will face the issue of animal identification. Winding its way through industry groups for the past decade, the animal ID issue has surfaced permanently. Livestock producers should expect to eventually have an ID number attached to every animal produced on the farm. The number will stay with the animal and meat product as it continues through the food chain. Identification systems will cost money, but much less than the cost of a major disease outbreak that decimates an industry.

USDA Secretary Ann Veneman recently stated that the department will expediate the implementation of a national animal identification system. Expect to see more soon on this project.

The USDA secretary also reviewed the BSE incident, USDA responses and other developments in her recent report. Here are some highlights:

  • The same day that BSE was positively identified in the cow, USDA informed the public. “We made the information public on the same day I learned of the presumptive positive test, December 23, even though the lab in England had not yet verified our findings,” Veneman reports.
  • USDA began daily briefings that were broadcast live on its Web site. From December 24 to 31, 2003, about 100,000 people viewed the briefings via the Web.
  • Safeguards to the meat supply were deepened with an immediate ban on non-ambulatory or “downer” animals from the food system as well as other risk materials, such as brain and spinal cord tissue.
  • President Bush’s 2005 budget includes $178 million for the National Centers for Animal Health in Ames, IA. The money will be used to complete renovation of the USDA campus to make it “the most modern and best-equipped animal disease diagnostic and research facility in the world,” Veneman states.
  • About 10% of the country’s beef production is sold to export markets, including Japan, Korea and Mexico. Immediately after the announcement of BSE, the export markets closed their borders to U.S. beef. This resulted in an initial drop of 15 to 20% in cattle prices. Prices have strengthened some but are still down 10 to 15% from levels prior to the BSE identification.
  • Restoration of the export markets remains a high priority for the beef industry and USDA. Japan, in particular, is the key to future strong exports. Japan is our country’s biggest buyer of beef. If Japan resumes buying U.S. beef, then other countries should follow. It appears that boneless beef from animals less than 30 months of age will be the first products sold outside the U.S. Scientific evidence indicates virtually no BSE risk occurs in those animals.

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