A Kansas State University veterinarian wants consumers to know that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s discovery of a sick cow in California shows that the meat inspection system in the United States works.

Larry Hollis said the April 24, 2012 news of a dairy cow infected with an atypical form of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) means safeguards enacted by federal agencies and the U.S. meat industry show that surveillance and testing measures are doing what they are intended to do.

BSE, which is sometimes referred to as mad cow disease, is a neurodegenerative disease that slowly creates holes in brain tissue.

USDA officials reported that the cow was first delivered to a rendering facility in central California and was never presented for slaughter for human consumption. Rendering is a process that takes waste animal tissue and converts it into by-products. The tissue does not enter the food supply.

“We’ve had an enhanced inspection system in place since shortly after the large BSE outbreak occurred in the United Kingdom (started in 1986),” said Hollis, who is a veterinarian with K-State Research and Extension. “It’s part of a national system, which also protects us in Kansas. Cattle harvested here in Kansas are inspected, just like they are in all other states throughout the country.”

This is the fourth confirmed BSE case ever found in the United States and the first since 2006.

The cow that tested positive for BSE this week was a five-year-old Holstein, Hollis said. It had been taken for rendering. Renderers by law are required to remove the brain from any bovine animal over 30 months of age to test for BSE.

“That’s a routine surveillance measure. It’s done all the time and on this particular cow it came up positive for an atypical form of BSE,” he said.

A more typical form was first associated with a BSE outbreak in the United Kingdom which was linked to the feeding of mammalian meat and bone meal back to cattle. That practice has been banned in the United States since 1997.

This latest case is different as it’s an atypical case.

“When we talk about atypical BSE, we talk about one that’s spontaneous occurring,” Hollis said. “It appears to happen rarely to an individual animal.

The difference is important, he said. Most people don’t realize it in the United States but classic Creuzfeldt-Jacob disease, a rare disease in humans, is a spontaneously-occurring disease just like this, and it’s been recognized historically for many decades before BSE in cattle arrived on the scene. Creutzfeldt-Jakob happens in roughly one in a million people and it’s an atypical situation. There’s a malformation of prion proteins in the brain. It happens and it causes neurological problems. The same thing can happen in cattle, and that’s apparently what’s happened in this cow.”

“The USDA has done due diligence with this,” Hollis said. “They’ve sent samples on for further testing to a lab in Canada and in the UK to make sure that they agree with U.S. officials that it’s an atypical form. If it is, it’s just one of those freak of nature things that sometimes happens.”

“As we watched BSE unfold in the United Kingdom back in the late 1980s, we were over there watching and when they learned something, we learned with them,” he said. “We (U.S. scientists and regulators) put together a surveillance system that’s second to none. We do surveillance on all at-risk animals, any suspect animals, plus any animals over 30 months of age going through the rendering process. When you look at the number of cattle harvested in this country, we’re looking for a needle in a haystack and the system found it. The system has found it before and it will continue to find it in the future.”

Hollis said that the stringent surveillance system is paramount in safeguarding the food supply for consumers: “It’s part of the cost of doing business and we’re glad to do it so that we don’t provide something to consumers that can harm them.”

“I don’t know how we do it any more safely than we do. I know I’m very confident in eating beef.”

Hollis noted that USDA regulations as of the first of the year required that all U.S. rendering companies remove the brain and spinal cord of any animals over 30 months of age and test it – just like they did in California that in this case, turned out positive.

The veterinarian noted that in 2011, only 29 cases of BSE were confirmed worldwide, which was significantly fewer than the 37,000 plus cases that occurred at the peak of the problem in 1992 in the U.K.

They have put the same preventive measures in place that we have, to where they’ve dropped infections down to very low numbers,” Hollis said, adding that most developed countries worldwide have put similar testing and surveillance procedures into place. “That’s the reason we’ve got this down to 29 worldwide, and we anticipate that it will eventually go near zero.”

“The U.S. has an aggressive testing system and it works,” he said. “Our public can be assured that we have the safest beef supply in the world, and when it comes to testing for BSE or worry about producing Cruetzfeld-Jakob disease, I’d rather eat U.S. beef than anybody else’s.”