Final report released on BSE case

Aug 10, 2012

USDA’s conclusion that a California Holstein found infected last April with BSE was an isolated case that did not threaten the nation’s food supply was welcomed and praised by Michael Marsh, Western United Dairymen’s (WUD) chief executive officer.

The three-month investigation by the USDA, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) turned up no other cases of BSE, commonly known as Mad Cow Disease. Marsh said he was impressed by the outstanding response of USDA and CDFA to the potentially disastrous incident.

“The safety measures the industry put in place again have proven to be effective in keeping our food supply safe,” Marsh told the Western Livestock Journal.

The 10-year-old cow at a Tulare County dairy was only the fourth case since 2003 discovered in the U.S. with the fatal brain and spinal cord disease that causes cattle to falter and fall. An interlocking USDA safeguard system tests 40,000 of the 35 million U.S. cows slaughtered annually. Eating infected meat can cause a fatal brain disease in humans known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

The infected cow was unable to stand at the California dairy before it was killed and sent April 18 to a rendering plant’s transfer station at Hanford, CA. It was part of a delivered load of 71 cattle that underwent random testing there under a USDA surveillance program. Cattle must be dead to be tested for BSE. Their carcasses were quarantined, sealed in plastic vaults and disposed of at a close landfill.

The infected cow went down at the dairy and was “humanely euthanized,” Marsh said. State officials were immediately contacted about the downed animal. When it arrived at the rendering site, its brain and spinal cord were removed and sent for testing, returning as positive, Marsh said. “It just worked like clockwork, just exactly like it was supposed to. … It was a terrific success.”

Twelve feed suppliers were found to be in compliance with FDA and CDFA regulations and requirements.

CDFA Secretary Karen Ross was on a trade mission to South Korea when news of the BSE discovery broke. After South Koreans expressed doubts about opening their markets to California beef, she invited them to the Golden State and walked them through the safety process to assuage their concerns. “When they found protocol inspections were just as they were represented, trade with South Korea increased,” Marsh said.

South Korea immediately closed its borders to American beef imports a few years ago after a Canadian cow was found in Washington state to be infected with BSE. USDA had “a devil of a time” persuading South Korea to once again import U.S. beef. It took several years.

“There’s always a temptation for another country to defend its own domestic beef industry and implement something protectionist,” Marsh said, lauding the rigor of U.S. scientific and regulatory communities in ensuring the quality of American beef.

On Aug. 4, Taiwan banned imports of U.S. cattle organs and ground beef until 2022 under a domestic food sanitation law that prohibits such imports from places with cases of BSE within the last 10 years.

After the April incident in central California, investigators found 282 cattle identified as birth “cohorts” of the infected cow and tried to trace 210 of them that may have entered the food system. They slaughtered one dairy cow that was the only live offspring of the infected cow, but it was not found with BSE. The infected Holstein was not destined for the meat market and the human food chain was not threatened, they said.

Some scientists hypothesized that the infected cow may have developed “atypical” BSE from a random mutation and not from contaminated feed. During the 1990s, the United Kingdom suffered the worst outbreak of BSE with 4.4 million cattle slaughtered during an eradication program. It was thought that more than 180,000 of the herbivores may have been infected from eating cattle remains in meat and bone meal.

The first reported case of BSE in North America was recorded at Alberta, Canada, in December 1993. Another case was recorded in Canada in May 2003. The first known occurrence in the U.S. was in December 2003 and was confirmed to be a cow of Canadian origin imported to the U.S. Canada announced two additional cases of BSE from Alberta in early 2005. In June 2005, a fully domestic case of BSE was confirmed in a Texas herd.

Referring to Canada’s BSE detection system, Marsh said, “I’m not as confident in the protectiveness of theirs as I am with ours.” He said the U.S. led the charge against BSE and other nations followed suit. Britain’s first outbreak of BSE coincided with an outbreak of hoof and mouth disease. Tens of thousands of British cows and sheep were slaughtered, stacked in piles, soaked with diesel and incinerated, as a result.

British health officials feared if the carcasses were buried, disease could survive, contaminate ground water and infect people, Marsh noted.

California’s dairy industry is struggling to survive escalating expenses and oppressive state regulations, he said. “Our feed costs shot up by 40 percent the last three or four years. At the same time, milk prices are not anywhere close to the rise of feed costs. Dairy families in the state are having a very, very difficult time trying to hang on.”

On Aug. 6, WUD filed a petition with CDFA seeking emergency price relief with a six-month increase of 50 cents per cwt. on all classes of milk. “WUD is deeply concerned about the current plight of dairy families and while a 50-cent temporary price increase will not make dairy margins positive again, we believe that such an emergency price relief is required to at least ‘slow the bleeding,’” WUD President Tom Barcellos said.

Marsh noted that in 2006, corn was fetching $130 a ton and hay cost $130 a ton. Now, corn costs $350 a ton and hay goes for $300 a ton.

“It’s not fun. It keeps income statements awash in red ink. We’ve had a number of dairies file for bankruptcy. Over the past four years, we’ve probably lost 20 percent of our dairy farms,” Marsh said. “After the Great Recession of 2009, we haven’t had any breathing room for dairy families to get financial health again.”

Landmark environmental regulations also are making it all but impossible for dairy operations to expand, he said. “As mightily as we’ve tried to bring common sense to the state legislature, it’s very difficult,” he added, noting most of the state’s lawmakers come from major cities like Los Angeles and Sacramento.

When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced in 2007 that his budget would include a $40 billion deficit, the California Legislature introduced 5,400 new bills, with 3,300 of them requiring new spending, Marsh said.

California is one of only four states requiring overtime pay for farm workers exceeding 10 hours a day. There’s now a move afoot to lower that to more than eight hours a day. Another bill would have required having water within 10 feet of each ag worker at all times, he noted.

A few years ago, a study noted that California’s dairy industry had an annual impact of $64 billion on the state’s economy and employed 443,000 people. The state’s farm gate cash receipts exceeded $7 billion last year. — Mark Mendiola, WLJ correspondent