US vigilant in BSE battle

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Bse, Cattle, Usda

The ongoing BSE crisis in the US has forced the government to take
drastic measures to contain the disease. Agriculture secretary Ann
Veneman announced last week that additional safeguards to bolster
US protection systems and further protect public health have
already been put in place.

"For more than a decade, the United States has had in place an aggressive surveillance, detection and response programme for BSE,"​ said Veneman. "While we are confident that the United States has safeguards and firewalls needed to protect public health, these additional actions will further strengthen our protection systems."

The measures include the removal of certain animals and specified risk material and tissues from the human food chain and the introduction of additional process controls for using advanced meat recovery (AMR). Meat from cattle that have been tested for BSE must now be held until the test has been confirmed negative and air-injection stunning of cattle has been prohibited.

The secretary also announced that the USDA​ will begin the immediate implementation of a verifiable system of national animal identification. The development of such a system has been underway for more than a year and a half in order to achieve uniformity, consistency and efficiency across this national system.

"The USDA has worked with partners at the federal and state levels and in industry for the past year and a half on the adoption of standards for a verifiable nationwide animal identification system to help enhance the speed and accuracy of our response to disease outbreaks across many different animal species,"​ said Veneman. "I have asked USDA's chief information officer to expedite the development of the technology architecture to implement this system.

"These are initial steps that USDA will take to enhance our protection system,"​ Veneman said. "I am appointing an international panel of scientific experts to provide an objective review of our response actions and identify areas for potential additional enhancements."​ On 23 December 2003, Veneman reported that a cow in Washington State had tested positive for BSE. Two days later, the BSE world reference lab in Weybridge, UK confirmed the USDA's preliminary diagnosis of BSE in the dairy cow that had been slaughtered on 9 December 2003.

A swift and comprehensive investigation is now ongoing to trace the animal to a herd of origin, which is believed to be located in Alberta, Canada, as well as track additional animals that have entered the United States. The herd the affected animal came from is currently under a state quarantine in Washington, and while the USDA has not made any decisions on the dispositions of this herd, any cattle that die on the farm will be tested for BSE.

The United States has tested over 20,000 head of cattle for BSE in each of the past two years, 47 times the recommended international standard. Since 1989, the USDA has banned imports of live ruminants and most ruminant products from the United Kingdom and other countries having BSE.

Even if the BSE outbreak is successfully contained, the economic fallout could still be catastrophic. Over 20 countries have already slapped bans on beef from the US, and experts have predicted the crisis will cost the previously-booming US cattle industry billions of dollars. The list of countries banning US imports includes Japan, Mexico and South Korea - the three top importers of US beef. The European Union, of course, has banned most US beef for many years because of growth hormones - an issue that has caused great friction between the two great economic blocs.

The US dollar and Japanese stock markets have fallen since the suspected case was announced, while cattle futures slumped as far as markets allow. Shares in McDonald's have fallen by about 5 per cent on the New York Stock Exchange, although the fast-food giant says that its supply chain is not linked to the suspected case.

Related topics: Food safety and labeling

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