Brazil reports BSE-causing prions two years later

Dec 14, 2012

Two years ago, a 13-year-old, pasture-fed breeding beef cow died rather suddenly in Parana, Brazil. The cause of death was initially unknown, but bovine rabies was suspected so tissue samples were taken for testing.

Why is this relevant now? Brazil announced the cow tested positive for the prions which cause BSE. And this prion-positive status was known back in June of 2012, but only just reported.

Friday, Dec. 7, Brazilian agricultural officials reported to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) that it had discovered the BSE-causing prion in the tissue samples of that deceased cow.

The interval between the animal’s death and reporting the discovery of the prions was due to the low-risk nature of the case, according to Brazilian officials. OIE apparently agreed, and has maintained Brazil’s top BSE safety rating. Some groups are not convinced, however.

The Brazilian cow in question died in December 2010. Her keepers notified local authorities when she was found collapsed in the pasture with stiff limbs from causes not immediately identifiable. Within 24 hours and before officials were able to inspect the cow, she died. Bovine rabies was suspected given the rapidity of her decline and death, so tissue samples were taken for testing.

The initial tests for bovine rabies were negative. Additional standard tests were conducted for BSE, the first of which came back negative for BSE on April 11, 2011. A subsequent test conducted on June 15, 2012, came back positive for the BSE-causing prions. The samples were later sent to the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency of Weybridge, England, which confirmed the presence of the prions earlier this month.

According to the report submitted to OIE, the delay between the two BSE tests conducted in Brazil was due to a problem at the Brazilian labs accredited with identifying BSE. The problem resulted in a prioritization of tests according to risk factors. Given the cow’s age, the pasture-based nature in which she was raised, the fact she never entered the food chain and was reportedly buried on her home farm, and the speed of her decline and death (not indicative of BSE-caused), testing her sample was deemed a low priority.

“This episode does not pose any risk to public health or animal sanitary safety, considering that the animal did not die of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (the scientific name of mad cow disease) and the fact that it was buried in the property itself,” said Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture Secretary General, José Carlos Vaz, in an official statement, translated from the original Portuguese.

No information behind the interval between the positive Brazilian test and the sample being sent to and tested by the English lab for confirmation—approximately six months— could be found.

This extensive amount of time between the animal’s death, the positive tests and eventual reporting to OIE has spurred much suspicion. Despite this, Brazilian agricultural officials maintain they behaved properly.

“Our procedures demonstrate transparency and strength of the surveillance system implemented in Brazil,” said Guilherme Marques, director of the Department of Animal Health and past OIE delegate of Brazil, in another official statement which was translated.

At the time of writing, OIE had not yet altered Brazil’s status as a country with an insignificant risk of BSE, though no comment or official report had been made by the international group.

Trade issues

Japan isn’t convinced. “We suspended imports from Brazil as soon as an outbreak of BSE was confirmed,” said the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Saturday, Dec. 8 following the announcement.

Japan’s importation of Brazilian beef is admittedly very small. At 1,435 metric tons (1,582 standard tons) of beef imported from Brazil to Japan in 2011, Brazil makes up only 0.3 percent of Japan’s imported beef market. Japan additionally only imports heat-treated beef from Brazil given its status as a foot-and-mouth disease country.

“The suspension will have no major impact on Japan’s beef market as imports from Brazil represent a very small share,” said Susumu Harada, senior director at the Tokyo office of the U.S. Meat Export Federation. “Unless major importers of Brazilian beef suspend purchases, the impact on the international market will be limited.”

Japan’s suspension is the first of its kind since the country banned U.S. beef briefly following the discovery of classic BSE in 2003.

Japan is still on track to relax the age restrictions on U.S. beef next year and there has been no word on changing that plan in light of the Brazilian issue. The change will allow meat from animals up to 30 months of age to be exported to Japan.

Japan’s primary beef supplier is Australia, with the U.S. representing about 24 percent of Japan’s imported beef market share.

Brazil’s world exports of beef up through September of this year have reportedly amounted to $4.2 billion in value and 896,670 metric tons in volume. So Japan’s suspension of trade is not a big concern. Russia, however—being the destination of about 20 percent of Brazil’s beef—gave them some cause for worry.

On the Monday following the Brazilian announcement, Alexei Alekseenko, a spokesman from the Russian animal and plant health regulator/watchdog group Rosselkhoznadzor, responded to a Reuters question about possible beef trade suspensions with, “We are considering it.”

This caused several Brazilian beef- and food-related companies’ stocks to lose money on Monday. Among affected companies was Brazilian beef power JBS and Marfrig Alimentos SA, the country’s second largest food processing company. Stocks recovered later in the week as concerns over a Russian sus pension of beef trade eased.

This potentially passed scare comes just one month after Brazil banned the use of ractopamine in its beef and pork production on the concern contamination in meat exported to Russia might jeopardize trade relations with its important customer.

Brazil has taken a somewhat aggressive posture relative to the world trade market. Several officials have said the country will pursue legal action with the World Trade Organization if importers try to block Brazilian beef over this issue.

U.S. reaction to the Brazilian announcement has been largely non-existent on the official side. According to the most recent World Agriculture Supply and Demand Estimates report, the U.S. will have imported 2.24 billion pounds of beef overall. Up through the first half of 2012, imports of Brazilian beef and veal averaged about 6.33 million pounds a month. Assuming the data from the first half of the year is representative of the second half, it would suggest beef imports from Brazil will represent about 3 percent of total U.S. imports for 2012. However, beef import numbers from Brazil to the U.S. in 2012 and 2011 were both well below the five-year average.

The similarity of the Brazilian BSE discovery to the U.S.’ own recent case of atypical BSE—the length between discovery and reporting notwithstanding—did not stop some voices from pushing for immediate action on the part of the U.S. government.

R-CALF was quick to send a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack urging all imports of meat from ruminants from Brazil be suspended. The group points to the amount of time between the discovery of the animal and the announcement by Brazilian authorities as evidence of OIE’s lack of reliability in regulating global animal and public health concerns. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor