BSE fallout; import halts, inspections, and ID systems

May 4, 2012

The discovery of the fourth case of bovine BSE in the U.S. April 24 has had muted reactions at home. In other areas, however, there has been greater reaction. Indonesia has halted imports of U.S. beef and South Korea and Taiwan have upped inspections of U.S. beef. Despite the mild reaction to the news here in the U.S., the issue has sparked renewed interest in some sectors for a national identification (ID) program for livestock.

Indonesian beef ban

Two days following the discovery of BSE in the California dairy cow, Indonesia announced it will halt all but imports of “pure beef” from the U.S. The import ban applies to boned beef and organ meats, though boneless muscle cuts are still acceptable. The length of the ban is unclear, with the Indonesian vice agriculture minister saying it will last as long as it takes for the U.S. to prove its beef supply is BSE-free.

“The U.S. government has yet to overcome the problem. It hasn’t given us assurance that the products are disease-free,” Indonesia’s agriculture minister told reporters with AFP, a global wire service. “I have received a letter from the U.S. agriculture ministry that explains they are taking the necessary actions to solve the problem, but we also need to wait for our expert commission to give clearance.”

Indonesia makes up a very small portion of the U.S. beef export market at 18,000 tons last year, roughly 1.4 percent of all beef exports. It is the primary destination of Australian beef— at 100,000 tons last year— and live cattle.

Despite Indonesia’s relatively small portion of the U.S. beef export market, there were early concerns from analysts that its move might invite other small import countries to follow suit. Such concerns have been set aside since then, however. Additionally, the major import partners have signaled they have no intention of ceasing or limiting imports of U.S. beef.

Increased inspections

Though they are not halting or limiting imports of U.S. beef, South Korea and Taiwan have stepped up their inspections.

Spurred by public outcry, a team of nine people— ranging from government representatives to academics to consumer advocates— was dispatched from South Korea to the U.S. May 1. Their goal was to satisfy South Korean governmental concerns regarding the classification of the BSE case as atypical, and assess the procedure by which that conclusion was reached. Their conclusions have yet to be announced, but there is little concern among analysts.

South Korea has had a system of quarantines, set up regarding U.S. beef, in place for several years now. U.S. beef is stopped at the boarder and undergoes strict lot-by-lot inspection before receiving customs clearance. Since 2008, when South Korea resumed importation of U.S. beef following a fiveyear ban spawned by the 2003 case of classic BSE, the South Korean government has sworn it would immediately halt all imports of U.S. beef in the event of another BSE discovery.

The government is coming under fire from political opposition for its decision to continue imports and continue with its regular quarantine inspection despite its 2008 decision. The government has defended its decision of unchanged import of U.S. beef citing the case was discovered in a dairy cow never presented for slaughter for human consumption, and thereby was not a threat to beef safety.

In Taiwan, similar public outcry has led the Taiwanese government to seek permission to inspect key U.S. beef processing facilities and has stepped up lot-by-lot inspections of U.S. beef which were already the strictest worldwide.

Public opinion in Taiwan over U.S. beef is already conflicted regarding the U.S.’ use of products like ractopamine and Taiwan’s desire to join the recently formed Trans Pacific Partnership. Word of the BSE case stirred many consumer advocacy groups to demand immediate halting of U.S. beef imports. Taiwanese Department of Health Minister Chiu Wen-ta, however, said that banning U.S. beef would be unnecessary in this situation under the guidelines set by the World Organization for Animal Health.

National ID

As mentioned, though the domestic response to the discovered BSE case has been quite muted, it has reignited discussions of a national ID program. A proposal intended to strengthen birth-to-death tracking of U.S. cattle has been drafted. The proposal is another installment of what USDA has been claiming it would do since the discovery of the nation’s first BSE outbreak. Thus far, attempts have been unsuccessful.

The current proposal would require animals be nationally registered and tagged if they are to move between states. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he has a lot of confidence in this new rule. Claims that insufficient information in the most recent BSE case stem from an inability to track the animal’s whereabouts throughout her life have sped up consideration of the proposal, first drafted in August 2011.

Despite Vilsack’s confidence, the most recent version of the attempt at a national ID program—2010’s voluntary animal ID plan— was abandoned after many ranchers refused to participate. Common reasons cited were the expense of the tags and concerns over government intrusion into private lives.

The event which triggered all these results was, of course, the discovery of BSE in the U.S. Tuesday, April 24, a dairy cow from Tulare County, CA, was discovered to have atypical BSE. The cow is said to have been 10 years and 7 months old. She was euthanized on the dairy farm after she had been lame and become recumbent. The carcass was then sent to a rendering plant. Given the animal’s age and the situation surrounding her death, the carcass was tested for BSE and came back positive.

The cow was never presented for slaughter for human consumption and was not a threat to the food supply. Milk and other dairy products do not transfer BSE.

According to USDA’s chief veterinarian John Clifford, the case was atypical, meaning that it likely developed through natural mutation rather than through contaminated feed which is the transfer process for classic BSE. Atypical BSE is thought to be the result of natural neurological proteins misfolding to become dangerous BSEcausing prions.

What causes this misfolding to naturally occur is uncertain as research regarding prions is fairly new, but existing research suggests it is extremely rare.

The U.S. has seen three cases of atypical BSE and only one case of classic (feed-transferred) BSE which was found in an animal imported from Canada. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor