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LIVESTOCK HEALTH ISSUES CREATE CONCERN FOR U. S. BEEF INDUSTRY AND CONSUMERS ALIKE

by: Stephen B. Blezinger
Ph.D., PAS

Part 2

Judging from the e-mail's, phone calls and faxes I've received this week, it has been brought to my attention that the current livestock health situation we have facing the United States and, in fact, the world, is of considerable concern to a number of people. Now that we've gotten that understatement out of the way, let me elaborate. Typically, over the course of the normal two-week period between issues, I will receive a handful of contacts concerning whatever the subject matter was about. In the period of time since the last issue when we discussed Foot and Mouth and BSE (Mad-Cow Disease) I have received a fairly staggering number of calls and contacts as related to this subject, including one from a reporter with the BBC in London (Thanks, Luke!) who wanted an American perspective on the problems the United Kingdom is facing.

In the last issue we took a relatively brief look at both of these diseases and the facts surrounding them. I'd like to continue this discussion by examining some of the issues concerning the hysteria and what we do and do not need to be concerned with. The first thing we have to ask is: “What is all the hysteria about?”

Consumer Perspectives

We have found in the beef industry that the perspective that the consumer holds of our product can have a significant effect on markets and subsequent profitability. In the past this has been related to a large degree to the overall perceived healthfulness of the product, i.e. “Is consumption of red meat good for me?”; “Will it raise my cholesterol?”; “Can red meat contribute to heart disease?”, etc. Over the last year or so we've seen a change in consumer perceptions and an increase in demand for beef products thanks to a very proactive position taken by the industry to address the healthfulness of the product, beef quality assurance and various innovations in preparation methods.

The concern as created by the outbreaks of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) and the apparent problem with BSE (Mad-Cow) throw things into a different light. Primarily, it has created a concern of the possibility of receiving a contaminated product as well as the health hazard that affected meat could pose to the consumer.

To begin, as members of the beef industry WE have to have our facts straight. Unfortunately, many producers and other industry members do not. Secondly, we have to convey to the media and the average consumer that everything possible is being done to insure a safe food supply. Third, regarding the media, we have to insure they report the facts CORRECTLY – not a simple task. One thing that has contributed mightily to the whole problem is misinformation, information taken out of context or facts that are “spun” in such a way to increase the sensationalism of the story. Above and beyond it all, we have to have our facts straight.

Separating the Issues

As we discussed in the last issue, FMD and BSE are not related. However, part of the uproar over FMD is the fact that it has appeared, more or less, at the same time when we are concerned with BSE. The two diseases affect us in totally different ways. Foot and Mouth is not contagious to humans and poses no health threat to us at all. It is, however, highly contagious to cloven-hoofed livestock (cattle, sheep, pigs) and can have a devastating effect on performance (weight gain, milk production). Bovine Spongioform Encephalopathy, the technical name for mad-cow disease and is thought to be related to serious health conditions and deaths in humans. The spread is not nearly as simple as that of FMD but nonetheless is obviously of great concern. From several conversations I have had it has become obvious that the general public does not separate these diseases in their mind and tend to link the two together inadvertently. We have to make it clear that the two are not related and each must be dealt with in a different manner. Let's look at some of the issues surrounding each disease.

Mad Cow Disease

To begin, I hate the general label given to this disease and prefer to refer to it by the acronym related to the technical terminology – BSE. As discussed in the last issue, BSE manifested itself in cattle back in the 1980's due to the consumption of animal protein products by the cattle which were subsequently affected. The animal proteins – probably meat and bone meal, meat meal, or something similar were rendered from sheep affected by the scrapie organism, which affects the brain and nervous tissues. The answer to this, in addition to destroying animals that were affected or suspected to be affected has been the banning of feeding these materials to ruminant animals (cattle, sheep, goats). This restriction took place here in the United States in 1997 at which time the Food and Drug Administration said it was no longer legal to feed products rendered from the slaughter and processing of ruminants (cattle, sheep and goats) back to these same species. The products include meat and bone meal, meat meal, blood meal, etc. While no trace of the causative agent has ever been detected in domestic sources of these products this restriction was put into place as a precautionary measure because this was the route of transmission for BSE discovered in the U. K. Additionally, the U. S. has banned the import of products of this nature from countries which might be considered BSE positive.

In recent months we have observed incidents related to this issue such as the feedlot cattle in South Texas which received a small amount of feed that had been accidentally “contaminated” with meat and bone meal. It is estimated that the cattle in question may have received approximately 5 grams of the material in question. Something needs to be pointed out about this situation. As mentioned before, the causative agent of BSE has never been found in domestic meat and bone. The likelihood that these cattle, through the consumption of this feed product, could have been exposed is astronomically small. The recall of the feed and removal of the cattle was, once again a precautionary measure to insure that the consumer sees that our industry will not allow even a small potential for this problem to develop.

Even more recently we have seen the confiscation of livestock (sheep in Vermont, cattle in Texas) that were imported from Europe because of their potential exposure to the disease prior to importation. Once again the likelihood of an occurrence of BSE in the United States from this avenue is very small. However, in the long run it will pay to be very watchful and proactive in dealing with these situations. While my heart goes out to those producers who owned these animals, once again we are talking about consumer perceptions of food safety. Based on typical USDA and governmental policy, these livestock owners are, in fact, compensated at fair market value for the animals they lose due to this situation.

Finally, when we examine the facts, what we find is that the chances of human health being affected by a BSE condition are so incredibly low they would be very difficult to estimate. Part of this is related to what we know about transmission of the disease. Additionally, there have been some findings that suggest that the contaminated meat that is suspected to be related to the deaths in the U. K. came from a common source (meat packing facility) and could be related to how the animals were processed. The processes used in the packing industry here in the U. S. are quite different.

It is simply important that we take all logical, effective steps we can to 1) insure that the disease does not enter the country and 2) that we, as an industry do what is necessary to prevent potential avenues of transmission (i.e. the feeding of ruminant protein by-products).

Foot and Mouth Disease

Foot and Mouth is a totally different “animal” when compared to BSE and the issues surrounding it are different as well. FMD is brought on by infection with the FMD virus. This is a bit misleading since there are 7 different strains of the virus and about 60 different subspecies of each. The result of infection is significantly reduced performance in the animal. No evidence has ever been shown that the disease can be contracted by man. The disease is extremely contagious and can be transmitted through the air, on clothing, boots, tires, in contaminated meat or food products, etc.

There have been numerous outbreaks of the disease in South America, Europe, including Great Britain and Asia. At this point, no documented cases have been identified in North America (Mexico, U. S., Canada) or Australia.

One thing that we need to understand is that FMD has been around for thousands of years. This isn't a disease that crept up over night. Additionally, FMD has been found virtually all over the world at one time or another. Fortunately the last documented case in the U. S. was over 70 years ago. In other parts of the world, it has continued to be alive and well. One of the first questions we have to ask ourselves is “How did it get into a progressive country such as England?” The sad part of this story is that it is simply related to greed. It appears that the virus entered that county in contaminated food products destined to be used in hog feeds. In other words, somebody got what they thought was a “deal” on some feed materials and brought it into the country. The second part relates to the lack of appropriate procedures which would keep materials like this out of the country. The U. K. and many other counties are in need of the proper logistical resources which effectively identify and document suspect materials in an effort to keep similar problems out of the country. An example of this is related in the transport (aka smuggling) of two tons of spoiled, rotted meat products from Africa through Heathrow Airport recently hidden in a shipment of produce. Fortunately this was identified and confiscated but this is somewhat after the fact.

The U. S., in a concerted effort to keep our food supplies clean, has implemented rigorous screening procedures for incoming products and even people. Customs locations at various airports have increased personnel, dogs, etc. in an effort to keep out the virus. Additionally, the United States has restricted the import of all meat and meat related products from the U. K. and Europe at this time to prevent entry. This policy will obviously be kept in place until we can be ascertained that the problem has been eliminated.

In an effort to address the FMD situation a number of countries have elected to implement a vaccination program for the disease. Several facts that need to be considered about vaccinating for FMD:

1) Recall what was said earlier concerning the number of strains and subspecies. Vaccination has to be given for the specific virus. Vaccinating for one will not insure that another will not affect the herd as well or the herd down the road.

2) The vaccine is in relatively short supply although it does not take long to produce.

3) The vaccine addresses the symptoms of the disease; it will not keep an animal from being a carrier.

4) The vaccinations must be given by a licensed veterinarian. Since he/she would be traveling from farm to farm, the potential for further spread of the disease is present despite efforts to eliminate contamination.

What would an outbreak of FMD mean in the U. S.

An outbreak of FMD in the United States would create a host of problems. Initially it would cost the livestock industry literally billions of dollars. Subsequently it would affect all sectors of the beef, swine and sheep industries as well as the grain, feed, animal health and all related industries. Much of the concern is related to sectors such as the feedlot and dairy industry where cattle are kept in relatively close confinement. Secondly, the scale of our operations is of concern. Some feedyards have occupancies of 100,000 head and up. In the Texas Panhandle alone if one feedyard near Hereford, Texas would be affected, cattle in an area within a 20-mile radius of the initial outbreak location would be destroyed. This could mean 500,000 to 750,000 head of cattle in one fell swoop. Needless to say this would have a huge effect on the Ag economy. Subsequently we have to consider what this would do to consumer confidence in meat products. You would see a drastic reduction in beef and pork consumption virtually overnight.

Conclusions

While I am not an alarmist, the facts discussed give us ample reason to be very careful and very watchful of our industry and of how we are handling potential methods of transmission. I am very sympathetic to the producers in affected countries and my heart goes out to them. But we have to be sure the same thing does not happen here. We want to be careful to dot the I's and cross the T's but at the same time use common sense and logic in the process. This is also something we all have to be involved in, not just the federal government and policy makers in the livestock industry. We have the best system in the world. It's up to us to keep it safe and clean.

Dr. Steve Blezinger is a management and nutritional consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, TX. He may be contacted at P.O. Box 653 Sulphur Springs, TX 75482, by phone at (903) 885-7992 or by e-mail at sblez@peoplescom.net.

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