American beef worries gone, but mad-cow disease not forgotten

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – With the discovery of avian flu virus in Delaware and southeastern Pennsylvania chicken flocks this month, the nation’s attention has moved on to the next “animal disease du jour.”

But a veterinary scientist in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences says the economic impacts of the recent BSE scare – also known as mad-cow disease – will be around for a long time.

No worries. Because no more cows with BSE were found in this country, and probably thanks to measures quickly taken by the USDA – including destroying hundreds of cattle – beef worries have eased.

Worries eased so much that sales are approaching levels attained before the BSE discovery.

And with avian influenza stealing the agricultural headlines, it seems as though this BSE episode is behind us.

But not so, said Robert Van Saun, associate professor of veterinary science.

“Even though the USDA closed its BSE investigation, the BSE-caused crisis is far from over. The economic effects from the BSE scare are going to go on and on and on.”

Still going. For instance, in response to BSE being found in a “downer” cow, the USDA declared that products from downer cows may no longer enter the food chain, even from animals that have no pathological problem and are just lame.

And the agency also mandated that cow bone, meat and blood products may no longer be fed to cattle.

Those rulings have enormous ramifications, according to Van Saun.

“Only about half of a cow is actually used as beef, the other half of the carcass is left after the butchering process,” Van Saun points out.

“Previously, renderers took the carcasses and were able to produce high-protein products such as meat and bone meal and blood meal, which were sold and fed to cattle.

In the environment. “But meat and bone meal were implicated in spreading BSE in the Great Britain outbreak. So now, the carcasses must go into landfills or be buried on the farm, a practice that has environmental implications.

This practice will also limit the availability of high-risk animals for evaluation for the presence of BSE through the governmental monitoring program, Van Saun said.

Price reacts. Because beef producers now must pay to dispose of carcasses and all downer cows, the price of beef is sure to rise, Van Saun warns.

“I am not trivializing Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease – it’s a horrible disease, and the first concern everybody had, obviously, was to be certain that BSE was not in the food supply.

“And the risk is really quite small now. But this must be put into context for the public. We are going to pay a tremendous price for zero tolerance for BSE.”

Zero tolerance. “The government has – perhaps for political reasons related to beef importers outside this country – put more stringent firewalls in place to maintain a zero tolerance for BSE. Those firewalls are going to have more ramifications to the citizens of Pennsylvania than the disease itself.”

Now that beef producers no longer can feed to cattle protein products rendered from cattle carcasses, producers will have to turn to soybeans.

“Then they will be competing with humans for protein,” Van Saun said.

“What if there is a drought in the Midwest and the soybean yield is way down? Will we stop feeding cows?

Feeding cows. “People don’t realize that cows are the greatest recyclers in the world,” he adds.

“They can eat all sorts of things and the bacteria in their rumen turn it into milk and meat. For instance, cattle producers are now banned from feeding poultry litter, an excellent source of nitrogen.

“So now that will have to be put on the land or in a landfill. But we all know that excess nitrogen is a problem for our streams, lakes and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay. These kinds of things are all interconnected.”

Taking out the trash. Van Saun wonders whether we have enough land to dispose of the excess agricultural products, noting that “we barely have the land to get rid of the garbage we generate now.”

He predicts that the fallout from the BSE scare will lead to higher production and processing costs, higher food prices and higher landfill costs.

“And then, what will the environmental impact be when we start putting all this organic material into the land?” he asks.

“There is some thought that these decisions were made too quickly primarily to address concerns by overseas beef importers, and there is speculation that as the public gets perspective on the issue, some of these regulations might be adjusted to conform to scientific knowledge of BSE disease risk.”

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