A powerful world panel is recommending that the United States be dropped to the lower “negligible” risk classification for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or Mad Cow Disease, an opinion praised by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. BSE is a fatal neurodegenerative disease that originates in cattle.  It causes a spongy degeneration of the brain and spinal cord. The recommendation was made by the Scientific Commission for the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) Wednesday, and could become a reality in May. “I am very pleased with this decision and recommendation of the OIE’s Scientific Commission,” Vilsack said in a statement released by his office. “This is a significant achievement for the United States, American beef producers and businesses, and federal and state partners who work in coordination to maintain a system of three interlocking safeguards against BSE that protect our public and animal health.” The new lower risk category for U.S. beef will mean more exports for U.S. beef and beef products, Vilsack said. Those products “are of the highest quality, wholesome and produced to the highest standards of the world,” according to the Secretary. “The United States continues to press for normalization of beef trade with several nations in a manner that is based on science and consistent with international standards,” Vilsack added. U.S. food and agriculture exporters and consumers worldwide benefit when countries adopt international standards.” The U.S. application for the lower risk category of “negligible,” a step below “controlled,” has been pending for the past year. During that time, the OIE’S Scientific Commission has conducted a complete review and its recommendation now goes to the OIE’s General Assembly meeting being held in May in Paris. Vilsack said the U.S. expects the formal adoption will occur at that Paris meeting. The OIE determines the risk status for various animal diseases that exist around the world based on the action a country takes to control them. Negligible risk is the lowest level under the OIE code. Ten years ago, the U.S lost its negligible status when a single cow with BSE turned up in Washington State, which led to a collapse of U.S. beef exports. Three other BSE-infected cows have been discovered in the U.S. since then, the most recent in April 2012.  But that “Mad Cow” was found to be atypical, meaning its likely the animal developed the disease  spontaneously. The U.S. uses a three-pronged strategy to control BSE. Specific risk materials must be removed at slaughter. A feed ban protects cattle from disease. And, third, USDA conducts an ongoing BSE surveillance program. The first confirmed cases of BSE occurred in 1986 in the United Kingdom. By the early 1990s the UK saw more than 184,500 cases in the country’s 35,000 herds. At the peak of the UK’s epizootic of Mad Cow disease,  more than 1,000 cases a week were being reported.  The associated human variant, Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease (vCJD) also killed 165 people in the UK through October 2009 due to similar neurological symptoms.

The OIE has 178 member countries and the World Trade Association, which governs trade among nations, recognizes its rulings.