- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 30, 2003

In the week since the confirmation of the first U.S. case of mad cow disease (also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE), investigators from the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have struggled to determine its origin, scope and potential danger to public health. While preliminary evidence suggests that this is an isolated event which should pose little threat to consumers, Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman was right to respond with a series of additional protective measures.

Investigations have focused on a single Holstein, which was probably infected by contaminated feed containing brain and spinal chord tissue before it was imported from Canada. It was born in April of 1997, shortly before a ban on animal feed containing brain and spinal chord tissue — where the infectious protein that causes BSE is thought to reside — was imposed in the United States and Canada.

USDA investigators are attempting to track the 74 animals that were imported with the Holstein; the 81 that may have consumed the same feed; and the thousands that had been born before the ban was imposed. Regulators also recalled 10,000 pounds of the meat from the slaughterhouse that the infected Holstein came from, which had been sent to eight Western states and Guam.

There is no evidence that consumption of such beef poses a health hazard, since the infectious agent of BSE (a protein known as a prion) resides in nerve tissue. However, BSE has been linked to a variant of the neurological disorder Crutzfeldt Jakob Disease, which caused the deaths of 143 people in Britain during the 1980s. BSE also had a terrible financial impact. Thirty-one countries have already imposed either full or partial bans on U.S. beef.

For those reasons, USDA’s new regulations were probably warranted. The ban on the slaughter and sale of meat from sick animals — known as downers — should reduce the risk that the BSE prion will enter the food chain, as will the changes in slaughterhouse techniques ordered by the secretary. When fully implemented, USDA’s new national animal identification system should allow better protections against animals infected with BSE, as well as those carrying other ailments, whether natural or unnatural in origin.

That this first BSE case was caught, and one hopes, was contained, in a relatively short span of time showed that existing measures against BSE had some worth. However, this outbreak — and the events of September 11 — demonstrated the need to recalculate that risk assessment.

While it will take some time to determine how effective these new measures are, Mrs. Veneman’s pledge to be guided by sound science is promising. She should also be guided by national security considerations, since at some point, BSE prevention should probably be tied into USDA’s surveillance program for agricultural terrorism. Neither the threat from BSE nor other cattle diseases will fully vanish, so policy-makers should continue to look for worthwhile safeguards against them.

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