Italian officials are running tests this week on a cow suspected of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also called mad cow disease. If confirmed, it will be the first case of BSE in Italy.
First identified in Great Britain in 1986, BSE has also been found in recent months in France and Germany. The disease has also been confirmed in native-born cattle in Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland. However, over 95 percent of all BSE cases have occurred in the United Kingdom, according to the USDA.
The European Union is now requiring mandatory testing of cattle older than 30 months and there are reports that Germany will start slaughtering as many as 400,000 cattle to stop the spread of BSE.
The human concern is the potential link between BSE and a variant of the neurologic disease Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
No cases of BSE have been found in the United States, which has had an aggressive surveillance program for at least 10 years. It is my fervent hope that there never will be cases of BSE found in the United States. But I don’t think the U.S. cattle industry and individual cattle producers can stop worrying about the prospect. We need to pay attention to what’s going on in Europe.
The USDA has created a good line of defense. Since 1989, the United States has banned the import of live ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats) and most ruminant products from countries where BSE has been reported.
It has banned rendered product from ruminants from BSE infected countries since 1989 and from all of Europe since 1997. And in December, the USDA banned all imports of rendered animal protein products, regardless of species, from Europe to avoid cross-contamination potential in feed of non-ruminant origin.
The critical point in BSE control in the United States, says the U.S. point man on BSE, William Hueston, is “the willingness of veterinarians and renderers and members of the cattle industry and animal feed companies to implement and carry out measures such as disease surveillance and feed bans.”
The crippling of the European cattle industry should be enough to scare those individuals into doing just that.
Five years ago, amid BSE’s biggest scare, I talked to Richard Marsh, one of the leading researchers of BSE and a professor of veterinary science at the University of Wisconsin. The biggest effort in the United States, he said, should be the prevention of transmission of the disease. And it’s easy to do that: stop feeding animal proteins.
“There are very few diseases that can be stopped this easily,” Marsh told me then. An FDA rule in place since October 1997 prohibits the feeding of certain animal proteins, mainly meat and bone meal, to dairy and beef cattle.
“We really have no perspective of what’s going on over there,” Marsh said of the European devastation.
Let’s hope we never do.