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Bad news, but not as bad as expected

Ironically, the Canadian case of BSE gave the U.S. beef industry a perfect trial run and the results have been significant. Our spokesmen have been well represented in the media coverage that has been as fair and balanced as one could expect in the sensationalistic era we live in.

As of early last night, media interviews and backgrounders had been provided for CNBC, CBS News, CNN, ABC News and Nightline, NBC's Today Show and Nightly News, ABC's Good Morning America, BBC Radio, CNN London, Chicago Tribune, Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, Dallas Morning News, Seattle Times and St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Additionally, the reaction of USDA and Secretary Veneman has been swift and reassuring to the consuming public.

While there never could be a good time for the industry to deal with BSE, there are some positives about the time frame. Consumers are more concerned about their families and the holidays and aren't likely to spend a lot of time worrying about the safety of the beef they eat. Additionally, the raised terrorist level was still the lead in the majority of the media coverage.

While BSE was devastating to Canada, the U.S. does not rely nearly as much on exports to make our market. The initial market reaction is expected to be somewhat dramatic, but we are in a period of relatively tight supplies and are as current as we could hope to be, meaning that the market is in a better position to absorb a disruption in marketings.

There is little doubt that the loss of our export markets (as of press time seven importing countries had banned the purchase of our product) will deal a significant blow to prices. However, the industry has put a powerful precedent in place by insisting that these issues are not allowed to become ways of restricting trade but rather that they be based on sound science. Another advantage is that despite the lack of sound trace back mechanisms, it appears that the industry has already identified the cow, and her background almost immediately.

The next several months will be crucial for the industry to get the truth out both domestically and internationally, and that we establish, and verify the safety and wholesomeness of our product. While the industry will experience some difficult times, the industry is well prepared and is responding well.

We all need to understand the facts, and do our best to communicate them. There is comfort in knowing that the industry has spent years, developing an appropriate and coordinated response to an event like we've just experienced, and that you as cattlemen have spent the last several hundred years building trust and brand equity in the role that you perform. The American and international consumer will ultimately reward us for those investments. While repercussions are impossible to know at this point, the one certainty is that the time line for national identification will be moved up dramatically.

Here are some key points:

  • The animal was a Holstein cow that was non-ambulatory at the time of slaughter.
  • The animal was from a farm in Mabton, Wash. - 40 miles SE of Yakima.
  • The farm has been quarantined.
  • The animal was tested as part of USDA's BSE surveillance program.
  • The presumptive positive was diagnosed using two tests, one of which was the immunohistochemistry test which is recognized by World Animal Health Organization as the gold standard test for BSE.
  • The brain samples are being flown by military aircraft to the Central Veterinary Lab at Weybridge, England, for confirmation.
  • The animal was processed and, although there is no risk of infectivity in the meat, USDA will attempt to trace the product from this animal.
  • USDA has activated its emergency response plan for BSE.
  • This finding is a result of USDA's aggressive surveillance program. In 2003, USDA has tested 20,566 brain samples, triple the amount tested in 2002.
  • This case is not terrorist related and has no connection with the recent elevation in threat level.
  • USDA has set up a hotline to provide updated information. The number is 866/USDACOM (866/873-2266).
  • You can send media inquiries to where our dark site has gone live with a cattle industry statement, beef industry facts and related links. We will send you more information as we receive it.
  • You may access the USDA BSE Emergency Response Plan at: .
Talking Points:
  • While it's highly recommended that producers refer media interviews to a trained industry spokesperson who is well versed in dealing with the media, everyone should be able to articulate the key points relative to BSE.
  • The U.S. has conducted a BSE surveillance program since 1990 and this is the first possible case that has been found.
  • The Harvard Center for Risk Analysis has conducted a comprehensive multi-year assessment of the risk of BSE in the U.S. While the Harvard study noted there was some level of risk, the analysis concluded that, "In summary, measures taken by the U.S. government and industry make the U.S. robust against the spread of BSE to animals or humans should it be introduced into this country."
  • While this one case is unfortunate, systems have been built over the past 15 years to prevent this disease from spreading and affecting either animal health or public health.
  • The beef industry has fully supported an aggressive surveillance program in the U.S. to assure that if BSE were introduced it would be detected and eliminated.
  • USDA took swift action in the announcing of the case and moved aggressively to investigate the circumstances.
  • The U.S. cattle industry remains committed to eliminating this disease from North America. As such, we will work closely with the USDA to carry out a full investigation and determine what additional preventive measures, if any, need to be taken to continue to protect animal and public health.
  • This case was found in a federally inspected plant. The central nervous tissue from this animal, which scientists recognize as the infective material, did not go into the food supply.
  • Consumers should continue to eat beef with confidence. All scientific studies show that the BSE infectious agent has never been found in beef muscle meat or milk and U.S. beef remains safe to eat.
  • All U.S. cattle are inspected by a USDA inspector or veterinarian before going to slaughter. Animals with any signs of neurological disorder are tested for BSE.
  • BSE affects older cattle, typically more than 30 months of age. The vast majority of the cattle going to market in the U.S. are less than 24 months old.
  • The U.S. began a surveillance program for BSE in 1990 and was the first country without the disease within its borders to test cattle for the disease. The surveillance system targets all cattle with any signs of neurological disorder as well as those more than 30 months of age and animals that are non-ambulatory.
  • The U.S. banned imports of cattle and bovine products from countries with BSE beginning in 1989.
  • The only way BSE spreads is through contaminated feed. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration in 1997 instituted a ban on feeding ruminant-derived meat and bone meal supplements to cattle. This is a firewall that prevents the spread of BSE to other animals if it were present in the U.S.
Troy Marshall is a contributing editor for Beef Magazine, a sister publication of Southwest Farm Press.

e-mail: [email protected]

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