Although mad cow disease is in the headlines this week after the discovery of an affected cow in California, the farm bill passed on Thursday by the Senate Agriculture Committee failed to include an inexpensive and uncontroversial provision authorizing the lab system that tested the animal.
The National Animal Health Laboratory Network exists, but without formal authorization it can’t get a set stream of funding and must hobble along with just a few million dollars, said Gina Luke of the American Veterinary Medical Association, who has been lobbying on the issue.
“We have tried like mad to get it included,” she said. “You hate to say it’s dumb luck but it was serendipity that they were able to test this particular dairy cow.”
Most veterinary and public-health experts agree that one case of mad cow disease – known formally as bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE – doesn’t constitute a threat to the U.S. food supply. Most food cattle don’t live long enough to develop the disease – this one was an elderly dairy cow being sent for rendering after it stopped producing enough milk.
But Luke says testing is the first line of defense against some other emerging new disease in livestock. And consumer advocates say there’s just a bare minimum of testing to look for disease like BSE.
“We think this is an incredibly important laboratory network,” Luke said in a telephone interview.
“It seems like a penny-wise, pound-foolish decision. Our nation could suffer a devastating loss in agriculture were a disease to go undetected,” Luke added. “There are there 176 million cattle and sheep and pigs and goats in this country. A lot of people’s livelihoods depend on that livestock being healthy.”
BSE emerged in Britain in 1986, sweeping through British dairy herds and forcing the slaughter of more than 4 million cattle. It was traced to an unpleasant practice of feeding cattle the rendered remains of sheep, which have been known for hundreds of years to suffer from a disease called scrapie – the sheep version of BSE.
For some reason people can’t get scrapie but after the BSE outbreak, a few Britons started getting an unusual version of a very rare brain disease called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or CJD. There’s no cure and it kills fairly quickly by eating holes in the brain. CJD, BSE and a range of other transmissible spongiform encephalopathies are caused by abnormal versions of brain proteins called prions. These bad prions can transmit the disease if eaten, or via blood or organ transplants.
The World Health Organization says 175 cases of CJD traced to contaminated beef have been reported in Britain and 49 cases in other countries. But the trend has slowed to a case or two a year after laws were passed to restrict what cattle can be fed.
CJD occurs naturally in about one in a million humans, and BSE can occur sporadically like this in cattle. The Agriculture Department suspects this California cow was an example of one such sporadic case but is double checking to be sure. The animal's origins will be traced so other cattle from its farm can be tested, because cattle can pass BSE to their offspring.
USDA tests about 40,000 cows a year out of the 34 million slaughtered – a number that consumer advocates say is inadequate. “So we really don't know if this is an isolated unusual event or whether there are more cases in U.S. beef. Our monitoring program is just too small,” Consumer’s Union says.
USDA Chief Veterinary Officer John Clifford disagrees. "Evidence shows that our systems and safeguards to prevent BSE are working, as are similar actions taken by countries around the world. In 2011, there were only 29 worldwide cases of BSE, a dramatic decline and 99 percent reduction since the peak in 1992 of 37,311 cases. This is directly attributable to the impact and effectiveness of feed bans as a primary control measure for the disease,” he said in a statement.
The lab monitoring network gets about $10 million a year, says Luke. If it were authorized by legislation, it could get up to $30 million, which she believes it what it needs to do a proper job.
Another concern – it may take a while to track down which farm this sick dairy cow came from in the first place. “The United States has first-world resources and technology but a third-world animal identification system. In fact, some third-world countries do a better job of tracking livestock than America does,” said Sarah Klein of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Cattle in some countries carry radio frequency ID tags so they can be tracked from farm to slaughterhouse. “If American cattlemen suffer economic losses at the news of this discovery of BSE, they should blame only themselves and other opponents of a mandatory animal identification system,” Klein said.