“I am going home, and I’m having beef tonight for dinner.”
That’s what Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on CNN the night the USDA confirmed its first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), a.k.a. mad cow disease, in the United States in six years.
The case was detected at a Baker Commodities, Inc. rendering plant in Hanford, CA, on April 24. Among 60 deceased cows randomly tested as part of the plant’s standard operating procedure, only one came back positive for BSE. It was quarantined immediately and Baker disposed of the animal according with USDA’s instructions for contaminated carcass handling.
When most Americans think of mad cow disease, visions of brain-eating zombie cows come to the forefront, making them hesitant to serve their families beef. This mentality can have real consequences, as it did in Europe in the 1990s when an outbreak affected 180,000 livestock and consumers began seeking other sources of protein. The circumstances nearly crippled the British beef industry.
In the wake of the news of California’s confirmed BSE case, South Korean grocer LotteMart promptly removed all American beef from its shelves. South Korea is one of the world's largest importers of U.S. beef and even a temporary suspension of beef imports could be detrimental to the United States cattle and feed industry. Fortunately, the South Korean government said it will not halt imports, but only step up checks on U.S. beef for now.
But in reality, there is nearly zero chance anyone could be sickened with BSE from American beef. Our stringent food and feed safety standards are among the most sophisticated and science-based in the world and inspections are regularly conducted. Since 1997, the FDA has done over 93,000 inspections, according to a report released by FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine in February.
To ensure BSE never makes it into the food supply, the USDA’s feed ban list includes any rendered cow parts thought to transmit the disease to humans, including brain or spinal cord.
Dr. John Clifford, USDA’s chief veterinary officer said the dairy cow in California contracted BSE from a random mutation, not from contaminated feed or feed ingredients, meaning there is no need to trace back its food sources or to be concerned other animals may have contracted the disease.
“This was a very rare circumstance, and I can assure you and everyone watching this tonight that our food supply is safe and will continue to be safe,” Vilsack said to CNN’s John King.
Instead of looking at this as an example of a food safety failure, view it as an example of America’s food system at work, catching the contaminated specimen before it entered the feed supply.
As members of the feed and grain industry, you possess a from-the-trenches perspective on how the United States provides a safe and healthy food supply. Use this opportunity to educate your friends and neighbors on what you know about HACCP and the Food Safety Modernization Act.