Public Radio Commentary
presented by Books Dailey, MFU President
July 5, 2005
BSE: Plan for the Worst and Hope for the Best
On Friday, June 24, the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed a case of BSE originating in the United States. At the news conference, Mike Johanns, the Agriculture Secretary, announced that a beef cow with an inconclusive test last November was re-sampled and found to be positive with BSE.
This is what is known to date: the animal was born and raised in Texas, and it was approximately 12 years old. Its age indicates that it was born before the ruminant-to-ruminant feed ban was put in place in 1997. The animal initially was selected for testing because it was non-ambulatory, and as such, was considered to be at high risk for BSE.
Two problems with this case come immediately to mind: the issue of delayed and confusing testing procedures, and the ineffective 1977 ruminant-to-ruminant feed ban.
First the testing issue. The BSE confirmation, nearly seven months after the fact, reveals numerous glaring procedural problems within the U.S. Department of Agriculture that immediately must be addressed and corrected.
To USDA’s credit, it did announce that this case caused a change in its testing procedures and protocols. Now, if its rapid screening test results in an inconclusive finding, it will run both the IHC and Western blot confirmation tests. If either test is positive, the sample will be considered positive. This will eliminate having to send the sample to the internationally accepted lab in England for the final result.
This procedural change is a step in the right direction, but it begs a number of questions:
1. Why was the deciding test not called for immediately?
2. Why did Secretary Johanns not call for the clarification himself? And,
3. Why did the USDA Inspector General, the independent watchdog arm of the department, have to step in and call for the test nearly seven months later?
Montana Farmers Union believes that the USDA should always err in the interest of food and public safety.
Not only is the handling of this particular animal called into question, but we also question the total number of animals currently being tested. To us, testing can be indicative of the food safety standards a country employs, and reflects the standards their citizens have come to demand or accept. Japan, for example, tests every cow; Europe tests one out of four; and the U.S. currently tests about one out of 90. In 2003, however, when the first BSE case from Canada was found, the U.S. was testing only 1 out of 1,700.
We support more stringent BSE safeguards to be put in place immediately, including increasing the number of tests conducted, and allowing packers the option to voluntarily test for BSE if they choose. You may recall that several smaller packing companies wanted to voluntarily test all animals at their facility in order to satisfy the needs of the Japanese export market. The USDA would not approve this move, saying that more than one testing standard would be confusing and unnecessary.
Further, although the USDA claims the feed restrictions implemented in 1997 represent sufficient safeguards, we think the U.S. feed ban needs to be strengthened considerably to prohibit the use of blood, poultry litter, and plate waste in feed – things that are still allowed in the name of economics, rather than safety.
In order to wrap this up in a more positive tone, it is exciting to note that a company from Alberta, Canada, is awaiting approval of a live animal blood test that can reveal whether an animal has BSE. The company hopes to release the blood test this fall at a cost of $20 per animal, pending scientific verification from government agencies. The results are supposedly readable in less than 30 minutes, with the test performed on the farm and verified by a veterinarian. A single drop of blood could quickly detect a protein marker that identifies brain infections such as BSE. The company plans to provide research documentation to USDA within a couple of weeks, along with sending the documentation to Europe and the Canadian Food Inspection Service, with the hope of receiving scientific validation within a month.
This test would be a break through for everyone. In the meantime, we should insist that USDA strengthen its testing and feed protocols to provide the strictest protections possible for both producers and consumers.
For the Montana Farmers Union, I’m Brooks Dailey. Thanks for listening.