More than eight years ago, an adult Holstein cow on a cattle ranch near the edge of Washington state’s Yakima Valley became the first-ever diagnosed with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) on U.S. soil.
BSE, or Mad Cow Disease, was an international issue long before that diseased Holstein turned up. Yet, U.S. import regulations still are not in line with international standards.
Now, however, that problem — which has hurt the U.S. with some international trade markets — is about to change. Dr. John Clifford, USDA’s chief veterinarian, last week requested comments on a proposed rule, published in the Federal Register, that would align U.S. import guidelines for BSE with international standards.
The proposed rule adopts World Health Organization for Animal Health (OIE) criteria to identify a country’s BSE risk status. Under those criteria, the United States is considered a “controlled risk” country. USDA would like to achieve “negligible risk” status.
U.S. beef exports collapsed after that Holstein cow was discovered in 2003. After U.S. beef was banned by numerous countries, all forms of trade and diplomacy have been attempted to resume exporting beef. Japan and China have not removed their restrictions on U.S. beef, citing the differing standards.
While the first BSE-infected cow in the U.S. turned out to have only recently arrived from Canada, in 2005 a 12-year old Texas cow and in 2006 a 10-year old Alabama cow, were found to have BSE. No others have turned up since in the U.S.
But trade officials estimate those three cows have cost the U.S. beef industry more than $3 billion a year in lost foreign sales.
Last month, senators Charles Grassley, R-IA, and Ben Nelson, D-NE, led a group of 31 senators who wrote to President Obama and USDA, urging quick adoption of the new rule.
In a conference call with the media, Clifford said the rule should help reopen trade markets that remain closed to the U.S.
“The rule does bring us in line with science regarding this particular disease,” Clifford said. “This rule will also assist us to reopen markets or open new markets, and bring us in line with OIE standards that we have asked other countries to comply with.”
The U.S. will finally be able to “talk the talk and walk the walk,” said a spokesman for the Denver-based National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
Beef exports from the U.S. reached $11.9 billion last year, more than double from the $5.4 billion scored during the year earlier.
A Mad Cow epizootic, associated with feeding cattle meat and bone meal that contained BSE-infected products, in the United Kingdom peaked in January 1993 with almost 1,000 new cases a week. All totaled, 184,500 BSE cases were found in 35,000 herds.
Through early 2011, Canada saw 19 head of cattle diagnosed with BSE. One of those was imported from the U.K.
BSE is a progressive neurological disorder transmitted in cows by an agent called a prion, which is not well understood.
Clifford has been USDA chief veterinarian throughout the BSE era. In 2005, he kept the name and location of the Texas ranch with the infected cow secret.
USDA has provided questions and answers about the changes.