Collectively, there's a sure bet that cattle producers can make to enhance their return on investment during the next 12-18 months. That's simply picking up the phone to let USDA know when you are parting with cattle that fit the profile of those most at risk to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

As you know, in the wake of December's discovery of BSE in the U.S., non-ambulatory cattle were banned from federally inspected harvest facilities. Previously, USDA relied on this population of cattle for a lion's share of the BSE testing that is part of the national surveillance effort.

Last month, USDA initiated an enhanced BSE surveillance effort that aims to test approximately 268,500 head over a 12- to 18-month period. Only about 20,000 head or so were tested in each of the previous two years.

“The surveillance is intended to find out if we have BSE in this country and, if so, at what prevalence rate. We need that information to tailor our BSE programs. We also need it for our trading partners,” says Ron DeHaven. He's administrator of USDA's Animal Health and Plant Inspection Service (APHIS).

DeHaven says one barrier to resumption of U.S. beef exports to many countries is those countries' lack of faith in the magnitude of BSE testing previously done by USDA as part of the nation's surveillance program. Keep in mind, that magnitude — about 20,000 head of the highest-risk cattle tested each of the past two years — is 47 times more than the international standard for low-risk countries. This level was also the target for finding one infected animal per million head of adult cattle at a 95% confidence level.

Statistically, testing 268,500 head should be sensitive enough to find one infected animal in 10 million head of adult cattle at a 99% confidence level. Spun differently, according to USDA, the enhanced program should find BSE even if there are only five infected animals within the target population across the entire country.

On both counts, logic says the sooner the post-BSE prevalence rate can be defined, the quicker market risk can be more effectively managed with the resumption of international trade. In addition, authorities can ensure that prevention and containment are applied where they are most needed.

Classes Being Tested

Under the program, USDA will randomly collect, then test, samples from low-risk adult cattle, and even from some younger ones. But, the enhanced surveillance program is tailored to collect the majority of samples from the cattle classes deemed to be at the highest risk to BSE infection.

These latter classes include: non-ambulatory cattle; cattle exhibiting signs of central nervous system disorder; cattle exhibiting other signs that may be associated with BSE such as emaciation or injury; and dead cattle. USDA will also sample all cattle condemned during ante-mortem inspection by the Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Keep in mind that this enhanced surveillance approach is designed to provide an intensive one-time snapshot of the domestic beef cattle population. The aim is to help define whether or not BSE exists in the native population and at what prevalence rate, if it does exist.

Of course, one obvious question — a key concern raised by those opposed to the notion of testing all market cattle for BSE as trading partners like Japan have demanded — is what happens if we find a native-born case of BSE? After all, upping the number tested increases the odds of finding something.

Sometimes, reducing the ultimate risk demands rolling the dice. The fact that BSE's existence and prevalence are unknown following the case in December promises to add to market risk until it is known.

If BSE is uncovered in the native population, the hope is that being able to quantify the risk will enable the U.S. to demonstrate more effectively to domestic and international customers how the nation is managing that risk. In fact, the threat that reaction to another BSE case might be stronger than commonsense acceptance underscores the need for defining the risk via this enhanced program.

Compensation Pledged

USDA will compensate domestic producers for any cattle taken as the result of finding an animal infected with BSE. In order to attain the goals of the enhanced surveillance program, USDA says it's essential that animals identified as high-risk are reported to them in a timely fashion so that viable samples can be taken.

To report high-risk cattle, use this toll-free number: 1-866/536-7593. The number will route you to your nearest USDA Area Veterinarian In Charge, who can offer instructions on how to proceed.

If there's one thing DeHaven says he's learned in spades with the unfolding BSE story in America, it's the willingness and value of everyone with a vested interest in the business to cooperate with USDA in proactively dealing with BSE. That includes producers, packers, renderers and all of the rest.