USDA to cut back BSE testing program

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Jul 20, 2006 (CIDRAP News) – The US government's expanded testing program for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) will be cut back soon, having shown that the nation has "no significant BSE problem," Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said today.

About 759,000 cattle, or more than 1,000 cattle per day, have been tested since the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) expanded BSE surveillance in June 2004, Johanns said at a news conference. Two cases were found during that time, in addition to the first US case discovered in 2003.

Starting as early as late August, testing will be reduced to about 40,000 cattle a year, or about 110 a week, Johanns announced. The reduced testing program—similar to what was done before the expansion—will cost about $8 million a year, versus about $52 million a year currently, he said.

To the suggestion that the current level of testing should continue indefinitely, Johanns said, "There simply is no scientific justification for doing so. . . . The reality is this: there is no significant BSE problem in the United States. And after all this surveillance I am able to say there never was. We've proved that with our enhanced surveillance."

Johanns said that testing 40,000 cattle a year is 10 times as many as recommended in the science-based guidelines of the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE). The USDA will continue to test cattle from high-risk populations and from a variety of places around the country, he said.

"To put it simply, we've accomplished our enhanced surveillance goals, and it's time to move forward with a level of surveillance that corresponds to the very low level of BSE in this country," he added. In a news release, he stated that the reduced testing program "will maintain our ability to detect BSE, [and] provide assurance that our interlocking safeguards are successfully preventing BSE."

The testing program was expanded in response to the first BSE case in 2003, with the aim of determining the disease's prevalence. The government originally proposed to test about 275,000 cattle over 12 to 18 months, but the program now has lasted more than 25 months.

The plan to reduce testing comes as Japan prepares to resume importing US beef, long banned because of BSE worries, and as the USDA tries to reopen South Korea and China to American beef. Japan has been inspecting US beef processing plants this month and, if the results are satisfactory, is expected to resume imports of beef from cattle younger than 20 months.

In response to questions, Johanns said the USDA told the nation's trading partners about the testing cutback in advance. He also said it would have been "enormously disingenuous, if not downright dishonest" if the USDA had waited until the foreign markets reopened and then reduced the testing program.

Johanns stressed that the testing program is not a food safety program but rather a way to assess the prevalence of BSE. The key to protecting food safety is removing the specified risk materials (SRM)—cattle parts such as the brain and spinal cord, which are likely to carry the BSE agent if an animal is infected, he said. Removal of SRM from carcasses of cattle older than 30 months has been required since early 2004.

Citing an analysis of the US surveillance program released in April, Johanns said, "Experts believe that in an adult cattle population of 42 million we might find four to seven animals with BSE." With BSE that rare and with the SRM ban in place, the risk of BSE-contaminated beef getting into the food supply is "virtually nonexistent."

Also at the news conference, Dr. Ron DeHaven, head of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said the USDA is considering relaxing restrictions on imports of live Canadian cattle. Canada recently identified its sixth BSE case.

Because of BSE concerns, the only live Canadian cattle allowed into the United States are those destined for slaughter before reaching the age of 30 months. In response to a question, DeHaven said the USDA is considering allowing older cattle to be imported, because the Canadian system for preventing BSE "mirrors what we have in the US."

But he also said the USDA will consider any findings about Canada's latest BSE case before making any changes in the import rules. The latest case was in a 4-year-old cow, born years after a ban on putting recycled cattle protein into cattle feed took effect in 1997.

DeHaven also commented on recent reports that the two latest US BSE cases involved a different "strain" of prion protein from that seen in the first case and in European cases.

"Both the Alabama and the Texas cows had a slightly different prion" with a higher molecular weight than in previous cases, he said. He added that researchers are working to find out what that means.

"From the regulatory standpoint we're considering those to be two cases of BSE. But we feel very comfortable that our existing program provides the appropriate level of protection," regardless of the type of prion involved, DeHaven said.

See also:

Jul 20 USDA news release

Jun 8, 2004, CIDRAP News story "No BSE found in first week of expanded testing"

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