At press time, USDA announced an additional $70 million will be spent to test cattle at “high risk” of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) over a 12- to 18-month period beginning in June. The enhanced surveillance program, announced March 15 by USDA Secretary Ann Veneman, could test up to 268,000 head.

The bolstered surveillance is a huge increase from USDA's earlier-announced goal to boost testing to 40,000 head in 2004. The latest increase appears to be a move to reassure USDA critics, consumers and former U.S. export markets that U.S. beef is safe and that U.S. measures taken to prevent BSE in the U.S. have been and continue to be effective. The U.S. has thus far recorded only one BSE case, a single dairy cow in Washington state (imported from Canada) that was confirmed as BSE infected on Dec. 23, 2003.

“This enhanced plan will augment our aggressive measures taken over the past decade by strengthening BSE surveillance in the high-risk cattle population and establishing random surveillance in the general population,” Veneman said.

The $70-million tab will be paid by a transfer from the Commodity Credit Corporation. Testing will be conducted through USDA's National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Ames, IA, and a network of labs across the country.

“The objective for the new surveillance program is to obtain increased samples from the targeted high-risk adult cattle population and obtain a small random sample of apparently normal-aged animals,” Veneman said. “This intensive effort will allow USDA to more accurately estimate the possible prevalence of BSE in the U.S. cattle population.”

Ron DeHaven, USDA Chief Veterinary Officer, said the enhanced surveillance system will target four key groups:

  • Non-ambulatory cattle.

  • Cattle with central nervous system signs.

  • Cattle exhibiting signs consistent with a case of BSE.

  • Dead cattle where the cause of death or clinical signs don't preclude it from being part of this targeted population.

In addition, USDA will sample up to 20,000 animals randomly from clinically normal but older slaughter cattle, DeHaven says. The random sampling will provide another assurance of the overall efficacy of U.S. preventive measures for BSE, he adds.

DeHaven says the samples will be collected at state- or federally inspected slaughter plants, custom exempt slaughter plants, farms, rendering facilities, veterinary diagnostic laboratories, animal feed slaughter facilities, public health labs, vet clinics, and sale barns and livestock auctions. He estimates the total number of animals in that group to be approximately 446,000 on an annual basis.

DeHaven emphasized the program is a one-time effort. Once concluded, results will be analyzed and an evaluation done on what other actions might be appropriate.