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.

  • doc raymond

    To be clear, Japan has been importing US beef since 2006, although only from 20 months and younger cattle. This won’t change that. And it is ridiculous that we insist our trading partners recognize and abide by OIE’s international BSE standards, yet we don’t.

  • Greetings USDA, OIE et al,
    what a difference it makes with science, from one day to the next. i.e. that mad cow gold card the USA once held. up until that fateful day in December of 2003, the science of BSE was NO IMPORTS TO USA FROM BSE COUNTRY.
    what a difference a day makes$
    now that the shoe is on the other foot, the USDA via the OIE, wants to change science again, just for trade $
    I implore the OIE decision and policy makers, for the sake of the world, to refuse any status quo of the USA BSE risk assessment. if at al, the USA BSE GBR should be raise to BSE GBR IV, for the following reasons.
    North America is awash with many different TSE Prion strains, in many different species, and they are mutating and spreading.
    IF the OIE, and whatever policy makers, do anything but raise the risk factor for BSE in North America, they I would regard that to be highly suspicious.
    IN fact, it would be criminal in my opinion, because the OIE knows this, and to knowingly expose the rest of the world to this dangerous pathogen, would be ‘knowingly’ and ‘willfully’, just for the almighty dollar, once again.
    I warned the OIE about all this, including the risk factors for CWD, and the fact that the zoonosis potential was great, way back in 2002.
    THE OIE in collaboration with the USDA, made the legal trading of the atypical Nor-98 Scrapie a legal global commodity. yes, thanks to the OIE and the USDA et al, it’s now legal to trade the atypical Nor-98 Scrapie strain all around the globe. IF you let them, they will do the same thing with atypical BSE and CWD (both strains to date). This with science showing that indeed these TSE prion strains are transmissible.
    I strenuously urge the OIE et al to refuse any weakening to the USA trade protocols for the BSE TSE prion disease (all strains), and urge them to reclassify the USA with BSE GBR IV risk factor.
    Sunday, March 11, 2012
    APHIS Proposes New Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy Import Regulations in Line with International Animal Health Standards Proposal Aims to Ensure Health of the U.S. Beef Herd, Assist in Negotiations
    kind regards,