Enough beef to feed one million Americans for a year has been imported from Brazil without the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) mitigations that are supposed to be applied to countries where BSE is known to exist.
That’s because for the past two years, USDA was operating under the assumption that Brazil had not experienced any BSE, or Mad Cow disease as it’s commonly known. But Brazil–the world’s biggest beef exporting country–was keeping a secret for the past two years. A secret that if known might well have seen its beef banned from the U.S., or at the very least, subjected its beef to BSE controls.
That’s because while the U.S. was importing 67 million pounds of beef from Brazil, South America’s biggest country was keeping a Mad Cow secret. But it’s not a secret anymore. Here’s what we know so far:
Brazil on Dec. 6 became the 26th country in the world to report an incident of BSE, or the always-fatal Mad Cow disease that can be transmitted to humans.
The designation stems from a 13-year-old cow that died two years ago in December 2010 in Brazil that was suffering with at least proteins common to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), but Mad Cow disease might not have killed it.
Details finally began to emerge when Brazil filed a notification to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), reporting that a 13-year- old cow died in December 2010 in Parana and BSE was suspected. The notification said the dead cow was subjected to a histopathological test, one of two primary tests for BSE. It was reportedly negative.
A second test, not conducted until June 15, 2012 at the National Reference Laboratory in Recife, was positive. The beef exporting Brazil claims the long delays were due to work overloads at the lab and OIE rules that cause it to give the test a low priority.
After the positive test, Brazil also sent a brain sample to the OIE reference lab in the United Kingdom, where a second positive test for Mad Cow was conducted. OIE has not issued its own report.
Countries reporting BSE cases often pay a price in having their beef banned from world markets. That’s what happened to the U.S. in 2003 when its first BSE case was discovered in Washington state. Countries around the world banned U.S. beef sales. Although Japan announced it was banning beef from Brazil beginning on Saturday, it is unclear how other countries are going to react, including the U.S.
Japan is apparently not buying a second report put out by Brazil’s Agricultural Minister that the dead cow did not have BSE, but just the protein believed to cause the disease. BSE is a prion disease that involves folded proteins.
The Ag minister’s story is the dead cow was experiencing a spontaneous genetic mutation that was unlikely to evolve into BSE. Brazil could not confirm the exact cause of death for the grass-fed cow. It had collapsed and died 24 hours later.
“The two year delay in Brazil’s disease notification is a symptom of the failure of the OIE’s global system that erroneously assumes foreign countries, particularly developing countries, have the same means, commitment and capabilities as the United States to control and eradicate diseases, says Max Thornsberry, who chairs R-CALF USA’s Animal Health Committee.
Thornsberry said USDA’s reliance on foreign countries and OIE to protect U.S. citizens from unsafe imports is “absolutely foolish” and again points up the need for country-of-origin labeling.
USDA cutbacks in on-site review of the foreign regulatory systems that are supposed to inspect meat exported to the U.S. were reported earlier by Food Safety News.
R-CALF USA stands for the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America. The organization is based in Billings, MT.
The only trade- rrelated beef announcement out of USDA since Dec. 6 involved Canada. The XL Foods plant at Brooks, Alberta was permitted to export beef to the U.S. for the first time since the facility’s E. coli crisis.