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A Publication of WTVP

Some unfortunate news began hitting the airwaves of just about every news broadcast in America beginning December 23: A Holstein cow from a farm in Mabton, Wash., tested positive for BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy), also known as mad cow disease. The U.S. has conducted a BSE surveillance program since 1990, and this is the first case found. The case was found in a federally inspected plant. Effective soon after the case, the USDA banned all "downer" (unable to walk) cattle from entering the human food chain.

As I write this article, there are nearly 40 pages of paper concerning the issue on my desk. It's covered on the Internet, in newspapers, and news releases received at the Farm Bureau office. Where does a person start in trying to put this into perspective?

First, we know that last year's inventory of cattle in the United States was 96 million. Thirty million cattle were processed for meat and other byproducts this past year alone. With the U.S. human population nearing 300 million, this means there's approximately one cow for every three humans in the United States. Any way you look at it, that's a lot of cattle.

Now let's focus on this one cow that was diagnosed with BSE. The cow's origin has been traced back to Alberta, Canada. The only way BSE spreads is through contaminated feed. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned feeding ruminant-derived meat and bone meal supplements to cattle in 1997. This Holstein cow was more than six years old, so it's believed to have been infected from cattle feed shortly before these enhanced safety restrictions were adopted by Canada and the U.S. You may be asking why ruminant-to-ruminant feed was allowed before 1997. Meat and bone meal is a feed additive high in protein and calcium. BSE can't spread from cow to cow like the flu can spread from human to human.

The BSE agent isn't found in muscle (meat) of cattle. It's found in central nervous system tissue such as brain, spinal cord, and the small intestine.

So just what are the ramifications from this cow? For starters, numerous countries have halted importing beef products, including the number one importer of U.S. beef-Japan. More than 30 other countries-including South Korea, Mexico, Hong Kong, Australia, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia-soon followed suit by banning beef imports from the U.S. As U.S. beef exports rapidly dwindled, so did millions of dollars into the U.S farm economy. Obviously, Peoria-area livestock producers hope these countries will soon resume imports if they haven't already done so.
For several days after the announcement of BSE, beef prices were limit down. Cattle producers who were receiving $1 per pound for their product, two weeks later were getting 75 cents per pound.

There are a couple of bright spots in this whole scenario. Before BSE was discovered, those $1-per-pound cattle prices were probably allowing some cattle producers to be a little more generous at Christmas. Second, as consumers of beef, prices should also be lowering at the retail markets, unless the additional cost in safety inspections offset the lower price being paid for cattle.

There will undoubtedly be millions of additional dollars spent on extra safety precautions taken as a result of this BSE case to ensure the U.S. food supply remains the safest in the world. What does this tell you, as a U.S. food consumer, about the safety of our food supply? Thirty million cattle are used for human consumption each year. This one cow didn't even reach the human food chain, and yet it's reached the headlines across the globe.

I know it hasn't curtailed my beef consumption, and from the looks of the lengthy waits at numerous fine steak establishments in the Peoria area, it hasn't lessened yours either. IBI

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