USDA's announcement last evening of the negative test results on the animal whose initial rapid screening test results were inconclusive was a welcome relief for cattle producers going into the Thanksgiving holiday. Of course, the major takeaway news is that the animal did not have BSE, our screening program is working and, irrespective of the result, consumers are safe. In addition, this latest BSE scare points out several other things the industry must consider:
What is the proper way to handle these inconclusive test results? Conducting two rapid screening tests before announcing the inconclusive results was a positive and sound decision. Still, many are justified in their complaint that the market reacts negatively to these announcements about inconclusive tests, and the effect is very adverse to cattle prices and cattlemen.
USDA did a magnificent job of keeping the location, age and breed of the cow from the public domain the last seven days, but cattlemen's concerns that the market could be manipulated and information could be leaked are also very legitimate concerns.
Transparency is almost always the best course of action in a free market situation. Theoretically, the market's reaction will moderate as more inconclusive test results are announced (the market reaction this week was actually far less than its reaction for the first two tests).
Yet, with the test's manufacturer claiming that two inconclusive tests equate to a nearly 95% chance an animal is BSE positive, some sort of market reaction is justified.
Certainly, that single case of BSE cost U.S. producers billions of dollars and led to long-term negative marketplace changes. But, it's important to understand that BSE is an animal disease issue, not a consumer safety issue. Any who try to mire that distinction for political purposes puts this industry at extreme risk.
At the same time, there is some evidence that -- despite all safeguards -- BSE can randomly occur in high-risk populations at a rate of about 1 in a million. This fact will keep risk in the marketplace because at some point we just might find that one in 1 million instance.
Some industry folks advocate using BSE as a means to erect trade barriers in the hope we will never find BSE in a domestic cow. I can imagine no higher risk strategy than that.
Such an ID and trace back system will be costly, and will present some serious implementation problems, but most agree that it soon will be a marketplace requirement. With age documentation on the verge of becoming a market reality, it's time for the industry to not just begrudgingly accept animal ID but embrace it.