If you watched NBC's recent “West Wing” episode portraying an outbreak of mad cow disease, or if you are following the real-life outbreak in Japan, you might not think there's ever any good news about bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). But there is.
Thanks to early protection systems, the risk of BSE in the U.S. is very low, according to a landmark study at Harvard University.
“Based on three years of thorough study, we are firmly confident that BSE will not become an animal or public health problem in America,” says George Gray, deputy director of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis.
The project, which Gray directed, was commissioned by the USDA to give government agencies a scientific analysis to evaluate preventive measures already in place and to identify additional actions to minimize the risk of BSE.
Besides revealing that the U.S. is very resistant to BSE, the study also found that the disease would not become an epidemic if it were to enter the U.S., Gray says.
“We ran dozens of scenarios and thousands of variations of each of those with our model, and we couldn't come up with a single situation where BSE could take hold or spread in any significant way,” he says. “In every case, the disease dies out, usually in about 20 years.”
Despite the news, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman says programs to reduce the risk of BSE must be strengthened. “We cannot let down our guard or reduce our vigilance,” she says.
As part of a series of new actions in cooperation with the Department of Health and Human Services, USDA is having Harvard's risk assessment reviewed by a team of outside experts to ensure its scientific integrity. In addition, USDA plans to more than double the number of BSE tests it will conduct this year to more than 12,500 cattle samples.
The department also plans to publish a policy options paper outlining additional regulatory actions that may reduce the potential risk of exposure and ensure that potential infectious materials stay out of the U.S. food supply.
USDA plans to propose a rule to prohibit the use of certain stunning devices used to immobilize cattle during slaughter. Furthermore, it plans to publish an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to consider additional regulatory options for the disposal of dead stock on farms and ranches.
These proactive measures sharply contrast the events unfolding in Japan, which was announcing a third confirmed case of BSE at press time. Japan's Health and Agriculture ministries are being criticized for exacerbating fears with a clumsy response to its first case of BSE.
Reuters reports that the first BSE-infected animal wasn't slaughtered and burned, as the Japanese government initially claimed, but it was processed into meat-and-bone meal for pork and poultry. Though the government insists the materials did not get into the country, it banned the feeding of animal-derived protein to livestock in October. That's also when Japan first began screening for signs of the disease in all cows intended for human consumption.
The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries plans to spend $1.27 billion on measures to eradicate BSE from the national herd. Efforts include helping dairy farmers and distributors affected by the outbreak, disposing of banned and potentially contaminated meat-and-bone meal, and storing beef shipped before the government began screening for BSE.