Overreliance on meaningless testing and a lack of focus on documenting the effectiveness of steps that are making significant inroads against bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) are hindering a hungry world’s access to protein, driving up food costs and harming local economies as well as the U.S. beef industry, a BSE expert said this week at a Tokyo meeting.

According to the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF), Ulrich Kihm, former chief veterinary officer of Switzerland, was a featured speaker at the seminar. He was joined by Masahiko Ariji, a researcher for the AMITA Institute for Sustainable Economics, and a panel of Japanese journalists and health industry experts.

Kihm said Japan’s insistence on testing 100% of cattle for BSE — regardless of age — has been ineffective. He stated that the youngest documented case of BSE to his knowledge was 34 months of age.

Kihm noted that the effectiveness of removal of specified risk materials (SRMs) and the implementation of bans on the use of meat and bone meal for livestock feed have dramatically reduced the incidence of BSE and the risk of vCJD (variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease).

Ariji told the audience that there is a risk of BSE for consumers in Japan, but it is a risk that has not been accurately reported.

Ariji proceeded to outline the risks of death associated with a variety of circumstances based on available statistics and human exposure. His estimates show that there is virtually no chance of anyone getting vCJD in Japan, but that the risk from other activities is much higher. For example, the chances of dying from drowning in a bath is 380,000 times more likely in Japan than contracting vCJD.

Philip Seng, president and chief executive officer (CEO) of USMEF, noted that the U.S. International Trade Commission recently issued a report detailing that the U.S. beef industry has lost an estimated $11 billion in missed sales and opportunities and increased costs since BSE was discovered in the U.S. in December 2003.

Prior to the discovery of BSE, Japan was the leading export market for U.S. beef. These costs to the U.S. industry are in addition to the huge costs of testing in Japan and losses to the Japanese meat industry as well.

A panel of distinguished Japanese media and health industry experts acknowledged that Japan’s insistence on 100% testing for all cattle has been a costly error, but one that is difficult to reverse because it has been portrayed to consumers in Japan as an essential safety step.

Ariji stated that Japan has wasted 1 trillion yen (roughly $10 billion) on animal testing that has not saved any lives.

Kihm noted that with the decline in positive tests for BSE in the European Union (EU) and the evidence suggesting the success of the ban on meat and bone meal in limiting spreading of the disease, there is discussion of raising the recommended cutoff age for BSE testing for cattle to 48 months. That is based on the expectation that testing will not find an animal younger than that age that would test positive.

Ikawa of the Yomiuri Shimbun agreed that 100% testing is unnecessary, noting that his newspaper has stated that there is no value in local Japanese government (prefectures) allocating scarce funds to pay for testing now that the Japanese national government has eliminated funding for 100% testing.

“Testing at 48 months might be too young, but time will solve the problem,” he said. “If there are no [BSE] cases in several years, the numbers will tell the truth.” In the meantime, he urged his fellow members of the media to “try to be objective. Politicians may try to convey wrong messages, and media must be free to criticize that.”

Despite continued restrictions on U.S. beef in Japan, Seng noted that USMEF is seeing signs of progress in this key export market for U.S. beef.

“Three years ago, our surveys showed that 73% of Japanese consumers said they didn’t want to try U.S. beef,” Seng said. “Now that number is down to 39%. We are very pleased with this progress, but it is an indication that we must continue to push to get accurate information on the risk of BSE to Japanese consumers as well as key opinion leaders.”