Mad cow update: Who pays for testing for mad cow disease?

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – It’s not necessary nor economically feasible to test each cow that goes to slaughter for mad cow disease in the United States.

Amid calls for complete testing in the weeks following the discovery of the illness here, Purdue University experts propose testing only animals over 30 months of age as well as high-risk and disabled cattle for mad cow, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

High-risk and disabled cattle already are tested in the United States.

“We’re looking at a disease that typically has an incubation period of five to six years – most of the cattle that go to market are 24 months old or less,” said Leon Thacker, a Purdue veterinary pathologist and head of the Indiana Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory.

Of the 36 million cattle processed, around 6.3 million are cows or bulls, according the 2002 National Agricultural Statistics Service slaughter report. These are likely to be more than 30 months of age.

Cost: $50/head. Chris Hurt, a Purdue Extension agricultural economist, said preliminary estimates place the cost of testing at about 1 percent of the value of beef animals.

Economically speaking, Hurt said, testing cattle 30 months or older is feasible.

“At $50 per head for 6.3 million cattle, this is $315 million, which is less than 10 percent of the value of lost exports,” Hurt said.

Efficiencies in mass testing could make the cost much lower, he said.

Who pays for testing? The question is: Who pays for the testing?

Hurt said he sees two possible scenarios.

“If processors have to pay the added costs, they will shift some of the additional costs back to producers in the form of lower cattle bids,” Hurt said.

“Over time, producers will reduce production and eventually the cost would be shifted primarily to beef consumers in the form of higher beef prices.”

Hurt said that scenario might be financially difficult for processors and producers in the short run.

Taxpayers also might end up footing the bill if testing is subsidized, similar to federal meat inspection.

In that case, the packing plant would receive compensation for every cow they test. While taxpayers would bear the costs, consumers would have somewhat lower beef prices, Hurt said.

“That alternative redistributes the cost of the program to the general taxpayers, and that pretty well distributes the cost to the people who eat beef and avoids the short-term disruption to packers and producers,” he said.

Hurt said another question is how quickly can testing capacity become available as the number of cattle tested moves from about 20,000 per year to 6.3 million.

Will testing help? Will additional testing make consumers safer?

Tam Garland, a veterinarian and director of the cattle and ruminants division at the Indiana State Board of Animal Health, said even if an animal isn’t showing mad cow disease symptoms at the time of slaughter, tests would still detect the disease.

“If the animal is affected, meaning the agent is there, but not showing clinical signs of the disease, the tests would show it,” she said. “The cow that was positive in Washington had no clinical signs, but it still tested positive.”

It may not be economically feasible to test every beef animal the U.S. produces. On average, 30 to 35 million cattle go to slaughter each year in the country compared to around 1 to 1.5 million in the United Kingdom and Japan.

In the United Kingdom all cows over 30 months of age are tested and removed from the food supply as are high-risk and disabled cows.

Equipment risk? Simon Kenyon, a Purdue veterinarian and associate professor of livestock population health who was in England during the BSE outbreak there, said advanced meat recovery (AMR) technology, a method of extracting meat from the vertebral column, was banned in the U.K., and should be banned here.

“The sensible thing to do is to remove brains, spinal cord and other high-risk material from the food supply,” he said.

“We should also stop using the equipment that may be contaminated from this high-risk material, and that includes advanced meat recovery equipment.”

AMR product can be labeled as meat.

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