USDA On The Hunt For Offspring Of BSE-infected Cow
April 26, 2012

USDA On The Hunt For Offspring Of ‘Mad Cow’

Lawrence LeBlond for

After tests this week confirmed BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) in a dead dairy cow from a California farm, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) went on the manhunt, or cowhunt, for any offspring the dead animal may have had, stating they could also carry the fatal brain-eating disease.

But while USDA officials say there is evidence that the disease can be passed on from a mother to their calf, John Clifford, the agency´s chief veterinarian, said on the USDA website that humans can only get a deadly variant of the disease by eating contaminated meat.

Clifford said the agency is now searching for any bovines that were herd mates of the infected cow when it was younger.

The USDA is also saying luck, as was earlier suggested, had little to do with the discovery. While the agricultural agency only tests a fraction of the herd for mad cow -- roughly 40,000 per year of  some 34 million slaughtered -- it does so under strict protocol that is aimed at higher-risk animals and, it adds, can detect BSE at the level of less than one in a million head.

Efforts implemented to impose thorough surveillance and testing methods, as well as a system to track cows back to potentially infected herd mates were scaled back deemed too costly and time-consuming on the industry.

Today there are safeguards in place to keep mad cow disease from spreading. One is a ban on using cattle protein in cattle feed, which can lead to animal-to-animal transmission of BSE. Another safeguard in place is keeping parts of the cow that can carry high concentrations of the disease, such as the brain, spinal cord, and nervous tissue, out of the food supply.

“I am confident of the safety of American beef,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who insists US testing is based on world standards, told Reuters Insider TV.

Clifford added in a blog post on Wednesday that USDA officials “test for BSE at levels ten times greater than World Animal Health Organization standards.”

However, Representative Rosa DeLauro, a senior Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the USDA, said the latest case “clearly highlights the need for a comprehensive national animal identification system.”

Because the disease takes so long to develop, most often times it is only found in older cattle, and often not until the animal has already deceased. And in the US, most slaughter cattle are butchered way before two years of age, too young for the disease.

And since the latest case was deemed “atypical,” meaning the cow contracted the disease spontaneously and not through the feed supply, and the fact that it posed no threat to the food supply, the call for greater monitoring will likely go unchecked.

The USDA proposed a rule in 2011 that would cover livestock shipped across state lines and exempt feed cattle, the bulk of the cattle population. The rule allowed ear-tags, brands, ear tattoos and breed registry certificates to be used. A final version of that rule is expected to be issued by the end of this year, said the USDA. It is asking Congress for $14 million for the new “animal disease traceability” system in the new fiscal year, an increase of $5.6 million.

“This is the fourth time we've had a warning shot that if we had a major BSE problem, we wouldn't be able to find where all the exposed cohort ended up,” Sarah Klein of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) told Reuters, which says the nation has “a third-world animal identification system.”

Worse yet, cattle health program funding is expected to fall this year to $99 million from $112 million last year. And the 2013 proposed budget cuts it down to $90 million, a 20 percent drop in funding over two years.

“We will certainly review this case to see what could be improved but it would be premature at this point to assume it merits additional funding,” said a spokesman for Representative Jack Kingston, who chairs the House subcommittee that writes the USDA budget. “In this case, the system worked.”

The initial report of the BSE-infected cow sent cattle futures tumbling on Tuesday, but prices rebounded Wednesday after the government reassured that no meat from the cow was in the food supply.

Visit the USDA website for more information on mad cow disease (BSE) and the latest scare.