Mad cowA case of a single cow with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) can be pretty scary when it hits the evening news. But according to Sarah Klein, food safety attorney at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), there is no reason to believe the beef or milk supply is unsafe. The infection was recently reported by USDA.

“As part of our targeted surveillance system, the US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has confirmed the nation’s fourth case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in a dairy cow from central California,” says USDA Chief Veterinary Officer John Clifford. “The carcass of the animal is being held under State authority at a rendering facility in California and will be destroyed. It was never presented for slaughter for human consumption, so at no time presented a risk to the food supply or human health. Additionally, milk does not transmit BSE,” adds Clifford.

The US has had longstanding, interlocking safeguards to protect human and animal health against BSE, according to Clifford. These safeguards include the USDA ban on specified risk materials (SRMs) from the food supply. SRMs are parts of the animal that are most likely to contain the BSE agent if it is present in the animal.

“Evidence shows that our systems and safeguards to prevent BSE are working, as are similar actions taken by countries around the world,” adds Clifford. “In 2011, there were only 29 worldwide cases of BSE, a dramatic decline and 99% 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.”

“If the cow were exposed to the typical strain of BSE via animal feed—and the government says that’s not the case here—that would have represented a significant failure,” says Klein. “The government’s ability to track down other cattle that may have been exposed via feed would have been hampered without an effective animal ID program.”

The issue is not US first-world resources and high-tech analytical instrumentation. Klein says the US has a third-world animal identification system, and this is the real problem. “In fact, some third-world countries do a better job of tracking livestock than America does,” says Klein. “Botswana, for one, uses RFID microchips to track animals up and down the supply chain. 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.”