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Despite feedlot quarantine - no mad cows in Texas

There no mad cows in Texas. But I did see some irritable ones in a recent ice storm.

The disease bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), however, does not exist in Texas, or anywhere else in the United States.

The recent quarantine of more than 1,200 head of cattle at a southeast Texas feedlot made headlines for several days, was featured on national news, and sent a few shivers down the spines of cattlemen, state regulators and those of us who watch with keen interest how isolated and minute incidents can trigger nationwide panic.

A problem is not necessary to stimulate a public reaction. This is one area where Einstein's theory of relativity (for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction) does not hold. An action such as the cattle quarantine might produce an opposite reaction, but it will not be equal. Remember Alar?

The good news is that the incident shows the system currently in place to keep BSE out of the United States is working. Also notable is the rapid and appropriate response of a Purina feed mill where meat and bone meal were accidentally mixed into a feed supplement and fed to the cattle in the feedlot.

Purina discovered the error, recalled the product immediately, and notified the appropriate authorities before much of the contaminated feed was used.

Even more notable, Purina bought the cattle and will assure that they do not end up in the food chain. In a perfect world, mistakes probably don't happen, but in our somewhat imperfect one, it's good to know that such corporate integrity exists.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs says a Food and Drug Administration report indicated the contaminated feed contained such a small quantity of the prohibited meal that each animal consumed no more than a quarter ounce.

She also points out that, although the feed was contaminated and that mammal-derived byproducts are banned from cattle feed, the byproducts were of U.S. origin and would not contain BSE anyway. So far, the disease has been limited to Europe. And safeguards in place since 1985 will go far in keeping it out of the United States.

"The FDA regulation is an added firewall to the stringent measures already in place to prevent BSE from entering the United States," Combs says.

Those measures include bans on beef exports from the United Kingdom as well as bans on live ruminant animals and ruminant products from Europe. Also in place is a widespread surveillance program, including veterinary diagnostic laboratories across the country. Inspection programs at slaughter facilities also screen for central nervous system disorders in cattle. More than 6,000 brain samples have been tested. No BSE has been found.

The fear comes from the potential for BSE to affect humans who eat contaminated meat. The disease is fatal. That's a horrifying prospect and one that the beef industry takes seriously.

In fact, beef industry officials say preventing BSE from entering the country must be a "top priority."

Cattlemen urge government regulators to enforce import restrictions strictly.

It's also prudent to respond quickly to incidents such as the recent quarantine. The rapid response from Purina, the Texas Department of Agriculture, Texas A&M, and state and national cattlemen's associations may have prevented public panic and overreaction to an issue that posed no serious health threat to consumers.

Combs emphasizes that the entire cattle industry supports full compliance with FDA regulations.

"Texas cattle are safe," she says. "The industry is taking aggressive steps to keep BSE out of the United States."

Cattlemen have enough worries trying to make a living without having a mad cow disaster.

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