The U.S. Department of Agriculture released its final ruling late Friday afternoon easing regulations on beef imports in regard to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), the fatal disease in cattle also known as “Mad Cow Disease.”
The new rule will bring the United States’ stance on beef imports in line with international standards that base trade policies on the scientifically perceived risk of animals or animal products harboring the disease, according to the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).
While the agency said the move modernizes the U.S.’s beef import regulations, some industry and consumer groups have come out against the new rules, saying they needlessly endanger U.S. consumers and the country’s cattle population.
Under the new rule, some current restrictions on beef imports will be lifted based on countries that have a “negligible risk for BSE,” a status determined by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE). Commodities that pose more than a negligible risk may still be restricted, but not necessarily.
The rules could potentially reopen beef imports to the U.S. from the European Union, which have been restricted since 1998. The U.S. imports about 8.1 percent of its beef supply, predominantly in the form of live cattle from Canada and Mexico. About 10 percent of the U.S. beef supply is exported, mostly in the form of high quality cuts.
The move to align its BSE standards with international policies may also open U.S. beef exports to more foreign markets. In May, the OIE upgraded the status of U.S. BSE risk from “controlled” to “negligible,” the safest possible classification.
As an example of how the rule would change imports, the USDA said that boneless beef could be imported from countries that have had cases of BSE as boneless beef presents a scientifically negligible risk of transmitting BSE. Most imports have previously been prohibited from any country that had an indigenous case of BSE.
“These actions will further demonstrate to our trading partners our commitment to international standards and sound science,” the agency wrote in a fact sheet, “and we are hopeful it will help open new markets and remove remaining restrictions on U.S. cattle and cattle products.”
In a statement, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) President Scott George said the rule would be integral to expanding international beef trade and called it “great news for the U.S. cattle industry.”
Bill Bullard, president of rancher trade group R-CALF, disagreed, saying that the USDA’s new rule “radically” relaxed import restrictions for areas where BSE continues to persist.
Bullard pointed out that the European Union reported four new cases of BSE in 2013, saying that the new rule “opens the door to allow U.S. meatpackers to begin supplementing tight U.S. beef supplies with beef of questionable safety from Europe.”
Europe has reportedly detected 83 new cases of BSE since 2010, a significant reduction from past decades. Since the 1980s, the United Kingdom has seen more than 180,000 cases.
Bullard said the new rule also underscored the need for country-of-origin labeling laws, which are opposed by the NCBA and members of Congress via the 2013 Farm Bill.
The new rule could put both consumers and the U.S. cattle herd at risk, according to Dr. Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist at Consumers Union.
At least 177 U.K. citizens – and 49 other people around the world – have died from vCJD since 1996. One death has occurred in the past two years in the U.K., the country recognized as having the largest exposure to BSE, according to the BBC.
Humans can contract vCJD from eating meat contaminated with brain or spinal tissue from cattle infected with BSE. The agent that transmits BSE is not destroyed in the cooking process.
Countries around the world have tried to severely control the spread of BSE since its appearance in the 1980s. The disease began spreading through the practice of mixing cattle meat and bone meal into the feed of cattle herds.
BSE causes the brain and spinal cords of cattle to deteriorate. Symptoms typically appear in cattle older than 30 months.
The U.K. has seen more than 180,000 cases of BSE in cattle, by far the most of any country. By comparison, France and Portugal have each seen roughly 900, the second most. The U.S. has had four cases.
In the U.S. and other countries regulating BSE, cattle feed can no longer contain meat of other ruminant animals. USDA runs a surveillance program for BSE, and slaughterhouses are required to remove the brains and spinal cords from all carcasses.
USDA will file the new beef import rule in the Federal Register in the coming days. It takes effect 90 days from the filing date.© Food Safety News