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Environment News Service - - - Wednesday - - - May 31, 2006 - - 9:45 a.m. MDT

World Animal Health Body Changes Mad Cow Risk Definitions

WASHINGTON, DC, May 31, 2006 (ENS) - Member countries of the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) last week voted unanimously to revise the three definitions of risk categories for countries affected by mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

The three definitions are - negligible risk, controlled risk, and undetermined risk of cattle being infected with the fatal brain-wasting disease.

Previously, a country that discovered a case of BSE had to wait seven years from the date of its latest discovery before being eligible to be classified as a “negligible risk” country, the category for countries with the least amount of risk from the disease.

Under these guidelines, the United States would have had to wait until the year 2013 to be classified as a negligible risk country after a veterinarian discovered a cow infected with the disease in Alabama in March, the third infected U.S. cow to be found.

Now, as a result of OIE’s decision, countries work from the date of birth of the animal discovered to be infected with the BSE agent – misfolded proteins called prions.

The decision was made at the OIE's Annual General Session held in Paris from May 21 to 26.

The General Session notably brings together representatives appointed by the governments of the 167 OIE member countries. Some 600 participants representing member countries and intergovernmental organizations such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization took part in the event.

Many U.S. cattlemen support the change because it more accurately reflects the scientific knowledge surrounding the disease.

“Scientists have determined that BSE is caused by feeding contaminated animal-based feed to cattle, and that cattle are most likely to become infected with BSE during the first year of their lives, so using the infected animal’s birth date as a reference point allows countries to determine how recently contaminated feed may have been circulating within their feed system,” said Bill Bullard, CEO of R-CALF USA, a cattle industry association.

BSE spreads from one animal to another by consumption of feed that contains nervous system tissue from an infected animal. The human form of the disease can be transmitted if a human being eats infected meat, or through blood transfusions.

In 1997 both the United States and Canada imposed bans on feeding animal protein such as meat and bone meal to cattle, but some cattlemen say the bans have been unevenly enforced.

“OIE’s decision also allows countries to determine how effective their feed bans have been in arresting the spread of BSE within their borders," Bullard said.

OIE is now saying countries with adequate testing programs that detect no cases in cattle born within the past 11 years should be considered as a negligible risk for BSE because there is no evidence the disease has been recycling in the feed supplies of those countries.

“By applying this new reference point to the United States, which has tested over 720,000 cattle since June 2004 and detected two BSE-infected animals born more than 10 years ago, the scientific evidence suggests that while the disease may have been prevalent before the U.S. implemented its 1997 feed ban, the fact that no cases have been detected in cattle born after the feed ban suggests that the U.S. has effectively halted the continued recycling of the BSE agent,” Bullard said.

U.S. beef represents the single largest segment of American agriculture, accounting for roughly 20 cents of every agriculture dollar, and generating $3 billion a year in export business.

Before the first U.S. cow tested positive for BSE in Washington state in 2003, Japan was the number one importer of U.S. beef and Korea was third.

Japan and Korea immediately closed their borders and trade negotiations have been delicate since. In December of 2005, Japan reopened imports of U.S. beef but soon closed trade again after a box of meat was found to be contaminated. Korea has offered to accept boneless beef but the U.S. continues to push for full market access for all U.S. beef products.

With the exception of the temporary trade with Japan earlier this year, these markets have been closed for more than 29 months.

On May 25, thirty-one U.S. senators sent letters to the Prime Minister of Japan and the Ambassador of Korea asserting that U.S. beef is safe and urging them to resume trade in U.S. beef products.

The senators urged Japan to resume trade before Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to the United States scheduled for June.

The senators signed a similar letter requesting the Republic of Korea to reopen its market prior to negotiations on a Free Trade Agreement with the United States.

The letter to the Ambassador of Korea Han Sung Joo says, “Many American cattle and beef groups have emphasized the importance of regaining full access to the Korean market as part of any free trade agreement. We believe that it would be essentially impossible to garner the necessary support for a free trade agreement with Korea if it does not include access for all beef and beef products, including bone-in and offals.”

Prior to the embargoes, Japan and Korea were the number one and three international markets for American beef and beef products, respectively.

The senators also pointed out that many American cattle producers and processors have urged Congress to consider trade retaliations if the embargos are not lifted.

Senator Jim Talent, a Missouri Republican and a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, signed the letters. “We’ve been patient working with Japan and Korea for years and their prohibition of American beef is unfounded. It is time for these countries to lift their unwanted embargoes on our beef,” he said.

"The cattle industry is extremely frustrated with the ongoing ban on safe beef from the United States into Japan and Korea," said Brent Bryant, Missouri Cattlemen’s Association executive vice president. "These two countries were some of our best customers prior to this unwarranted ban. We thank Senator Talent and his colleagues for continuing to provide the appropriate pressure on Japanese and Korean officials."

R-CALF views the OIE's new standard as support for the organization's position that the risk of mad cow disease in Canadian beef is greater than the risk of disease in U.S. beef.

“Of the six BSE cases detected in Canada after testing less than 110,000 cattle since 2004, half of Canada’s BSE cases were born after the 1997 implementation of its feed ban, which suggests a continuing BSE problem in that country,” Bullard said.

“Canada will have to wait until the year 2011 before OIE would even consider placing that country in the negligible-risk category," he said.

The organization has been lobbying the U.S. Department of Agriculture for two years to reverse a decision that allows Canadian beef to be imported into the United States.

“It is irrational for the U.S. to continue commingling Canadian beef and Canadian cattle with U.S. beef and U.S. cattle when the rest of the world knows that Canada has an inherently higher risk for BSE. The U.S. is presently accepting Canadian beef products and cattle into the United States that U.S. export customers will not accept.

“For example, the countries of Japan, Mexico, Philippines, Taiwan, Egypt, and Hong Kong will not accept any ground beef from BSE-affected countries,” Bullard said. “Yet, not only is the U.S. allowing Canadian ground beef into the United States, but the U.S. also is allowing in imports of Canadian cattle that are eventually made into ground beef."

"This practice has complicated the reopening of U.S. export markets and is hurting the financial viability of the U.S. cattle industry," Bullard said.

Although five cases of mad cow disease have been found in Canada, most recently in April, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency says the safety of Canadian beef is not affected.

Even though the diseased animal, a six-year-old British Columbia dairy cow, developed BSE after the implementation of Canada’s feed ban, the agency says Canadian beef is safe. Canada uses the same safety measures as the United States - removal of nervous system tissues plus the feed ban.

The agency says that because only five animals were found to have the disease out of the estimated 110,000 cattle tested and the age of the animals detected "supports the conclusion that the level of BSE in Canada is very low and declining."


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                            This page was last updated on Wednesday, October 12, 2011.