California Mad Cow Case Poses No Threat To Humans
April 25, 2012

California Mad Cow Case Poses No Threat To Humans

Lawrence LeBlond for

The first case of “mad cow” disease in six years has cropped up on a California dairy farm after health and food experts discovered the disease in a dead cow, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) confirmed on Tuesday.

Officials are calling the discovery a stroke of luck because tests are performed on only a small percentage of dead animals that are sent to the transfer facility in Hansford, California.

“We randomly pick a number of samples throughout the year, and this just happened to be one that we randomly sampled,” Baker Commodities executive vice president Dennis Luckey told ABC News.

Officials said the cow had not exhibited outward symptoms of the disease prior to death: unsteadiness, incoordination, a drastic change in behavior or low milk production. But when the animal arrived at the transfer facility on April 18, her 30-month-plus age and fresh corpse made her a good candidate for testing.

By April 19, markers indicated the cow could have bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), a disease that is always fatal in cows and can also cause a deadly human brain disease in people who eat tainted meat. Samples were sent to the USDA lab in Iowa for further testing.

The USDA´s veterinary chief, John Clifford, on Tuesday April 24 announced that the cow did in fact have BSE, but it would not affect beef exports. “Both human health and animal health are protected,” he added.

The department´s Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack, assured consumers and global importers that there was no danger of meat contamination from the dead cow. No meat has entered the food chain and the cow “at no time presented a risk to the food chain supply or human health,” he said, noting that the disease cannot be transmitted through milk.

“The systems and safeguards in place to protect animal and human health worked as planned to identify this case quickly and will ensure that it presents no risk to the food supply or to human health,” Vilsack said in a statement.

Despite the reassurances, fears of a potential backlash among consumers and big importers of US beef fueled a sell-off in Chicago live cattle futures Tuesday, with many exporters still reeling from the 2003 mad cow epidemic that caused a nearly 75 percent -- $3.86 billion in 2003 to $809 million in 2004 -- drop in exports. It took nearly eight years before those exports fully recovered.

Experts said this new case was “atypical.” It was a rare occurrence in which a cow contracts a disease spontaneously, rather than through the feed supply. Transmission occurs when the brain or spinal tissue of an animal with BSE is consumed by humans or other animals, which did not occur in this case.

“I would say this is an extremely isolated, atypical event," Dr. Bruce Akey, professor of veterinary medicine and director of the Animal Health Diagnostic Center at Cornell University, told Roberta Rampton of Reuters. “There is still no evidence at all that BSE is anything but an extremely rare event in the United States, and nothing that poses a threat to the human or animal food chain.”

While most importers took assurance from the USDA´s findings, a few still suspended sales due to customer concerns: Korean retailer Lotte Mart, a unit of Lotte Shopping Co.; and Home Plus, a division of Britain´s Tesco PLC.

First discovered in Britain in 1986, mad cow disease has killed more than 184,000 cows and 150 people around the world, mainly in Britain and Europe, but strict controls have alleviated the spread of the disease. The first US case erupted in late 2003 in an animal imported from Canada, followed by two more cases in 2005 and 2006. Two of those cases were atypical.

The California BSE discovery marks the fourth case in the US since 2003. The USDA said they are still trying to trace the exact life of the infected animal, and the carcass of the cow is under quarantine and will be destroyed. The cow was found at a rendering plant, which processes diseased or sickly animals into non-edible products such as glue and soap.

The domestic market has been shaky as of late; unsteady from the fallout over a ground beef filler critics have labeled as “pink slime,” which was pulled from grocery store shelves and forced one producer to halt production in several factories and forced another into bankruptcy.

The USDA is sharing its lab results with international animal health officials in Canada and England who will review the test results, said Clifford. Local, state and government officials will also continue to investigate the case as well.

The name of the dairy farm where the cow died has yet to be released, and officials have not said where the cow is born. It is also not yet known if the animal died of the disease itself or through other means, and whether other cattle in the herd are similarly infected.

Other cows will be tested that live in the same feeding herd as the infected cow, said Michael Marsh, CEO of Western United Dairymen, who was briefed on the plan. Cows born at around the same time as the diseased cow will also be tested.

“Our members have meticulous records on their animals, so they can tell when the animal was born, the parents, and they can trace other animals to the same facility,” added Marsh.

According to USDA statistics, there were 29 cases of mad cow disease worldwide in 2011.