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HUNTIN' DAYLIGHT -- TESTING THE LIMIT

by: Wes Ishmael

Even though some folks are pushing for USDA to begin screening all cattle past a certain age for Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), or at least allow private industry to screen cattle for the disease if they choose to, recent events underscore just how far away the nation seems to be from any long-term resolution.

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced a number of actions in response to BSE shortly after the discovery, including: prohibiting non-ambulatory cattle from entering the human food chain and declaring that specified risk materials, or those tissues or portions of the carcass that represent the most risk from cattle over 30 months of age, be excluded from the human food supply. There was also a rule published expanding the prohibition of central nervous system tissue in advanced meat recovery products, the rule that prohibits the use of air injection stunning equipment at slaughter, and a notice to FSIS inspectors that they not mark normal slaughter cattle that have been tested for BSE as "inspected and passed" until a negative test result has been obtained.

In addition, during a media briefing in February, Ron DeHaven, USDA Chief Veterinary Officer pointed out, “Also, knowing that we are going to need quick turnaround samples for our surveillance program in the future, APHIS, since January 9, has been accepting license applications for BSE test kits and no doubt will be using one or more of those kits in the future. In fact, we have been using one of the test kits as part of our epidemiological investigation with testing some of the animals that were sacrificed as part of that investigation.”

But, to this point, none of these rapid screening tests are approved, and no one but USDA is allowed to utilize these or the Immunohistochemistry (IHC) test government uses to confirm BSE status of animals (more later).

At least one of this nation's packers it tired of waiting.

According to news reports, Creekstone Farms of Arkansas City, Kansas has told USDA they want to begin using rapid screening tests because they have Japanese buyers—a significant portion of their customer base—ready to accept their product if it's screened. So far, USDA is indicating they have authority for saying use of these tests by private industry would be considered illegal until approved by USDA.

In part, USDA's response on the issue is consistent with recommendations made last month by the Veneman's Advisory Committee on Foreign Animal and Poultry Diseases. The report included: “Prior to implementing regulatory changes in addition to what USDA and FDA have already announced, the Committee recommends that representatives of Harvard University be asked to review the Subcommittee Report and its findings (Harvard and the Subcommittee should communicate directly and come to consensus if possible) in light of the risk model they have previously developed and report back to the Secretary and this Committee.”

Likewise, Creekstone's response is consistent with an industry frustrated by the extended delay of re-establishing international trade for beef. Packers are not only losing money due to the ban on U.S. beef exports, domestic packers without facilities in Canada are reportedly being steamrolled by those who do and can buy beef in Canada cheap, then export the beef to the U.S.

The Big Deal About Testing

Of course, it's more complicated than this. For one thing, the Japanese, the largest importer of U.S. beef on a value basis continues to repeat its demand that the U.S. test all cattle harvested—as they do in Japan—as a condition of resuming trade. USDA continues to hold that doing so would not be consistent with the science utilized by the OIE (World Animal Health Organization). Incidentally, Mexico—the largest importer of U.S. beef on a tonnage basis—continues to keep its borders closed to U.S. beef as well.

Although the loss of exports is economically negative, domestic supply and demand fundamentals have so far kept the market more robust than many would have expected.

And, if USDA were to either require testing or allow it, there's little agreement, scientific and otherwise on exactly which cattle should be screened. Short of screening everything walking through a packinghouse door, where do you draw the line? Euopean countries draw the line at 24 or 30 months of age depending on the country, even though it has been uncovered in cattle younger than that. The science says the incubation period of the disease—typically 3-6 years—means the chances of detecting it in “young” cattle with current tests is slim. But countries using these screening tests do find them.

For perspective, the IHC test, considered to be he gold standard test, is impractical as a high-volume screening test because of its cost and the time it takes to obtain results. The IHC test identifies the damage caused by the abnormal prions that are thought to cause the disease. Specifically, it detects the microscopic holes in the brain tissue that are a result of the diseased prions.

The rapid screening tests detect the presence of the abnormal prions themselves. These are the screens used in Europe and Japan currently. They are more inexpensive and can be conducted—from sample to results—within about four hours. If there's a downside, experts say these rapid screens will produce false positives along the way.

Countries employing the rapid screens use the IHC test to confirm or negate the positive findings of the screening test. Rather than crash the market every time a new case is found, it seems just as reasonable to assume cattle in such a system would be regarded as carcasses already condemned today for other reasons: a non-issue.

As the World Turns

Adding to these and other wonderments, are the alleged inconsistencies in USDA's BSE investigation reporting that have surfaced in recent weeks.

As an example, the cow found with BSE in Washington was reported to be nonambulatory (a downer) from day one and thus was part of the routine BSE sureveillance program. In recent weeks, folks working at the facility where the cow was harvested have said that wasn't the case at all. In fact one former employee of the facility is charging USDA with a cover-up.

That's a moot point. The fact is no one knows how many downers have not been tested as part of the surveillance program in the past, whether there have ever been any ambulatory cattle that would have tested positive for the disease slipping through the cracks, etc. So rather than being the problem, the cow discovered with BSE may be a symptom of a problem.

In other words, now that the nation has found the one in a million cases the nation's BSE surveillance system was designed to find, some question whether or not the nation knows what it's true prevalence rate is.

Unless there is concern about finding lots more cases—which there shouldn't be if confidence remains in the sureveillence system that had been employed for the better part of two decades—it's tough to see why at least allowing private firms to screen cattle if they want should be so gut-wrenching. Yeah, there's a cost and logistics. Yes, if private industry is allowed to screen, those who choose who do so could be the market impetus that forces others to follow suit.

In response to a question about whether or not the cow in question was nonambulatory, as USDA reports claim, DeHaven replied during a recent briefing, “We're basing our statement that the animal was a downer on the fact that there are records from the Food Safety Inspection Service veterinarian who examined this animal before slaughter. He examined her in a recumbent position on the trailer that brought her to the livestock market. Having said that, there is nothing saying that an animal that is down cannot get up. So in fact both accounts could potentially be true.”

Yeah, but it misses the point.

“Recognizing that this is a sensitive issue, that there's been some media interest, the USDA Office of Inspector General has initiated an investigation. And so I think it's best left at this point not to comment further other than to say it is under investigation,” said DeHaven. “And certainly from my perspective from a disease standpoint the most important thing is that the animal was tested and it was positive, and we have responded aggressively quickly and appropriately since then. And then I think we ought to let the investigation pursue its normal course and determine what actions are necessary based on that at the appropriate time.”

Yeah, but that misses the point, too. The cow was found, but however you define nonabulatory, odds are just as good she never would have been tested.

That's not slamming Dehaven or USDA. They've done an amazing job with the tools at their disposal. The point is, folks continue to argue about the details of what happened rather than recognize, whether science supports it or not, a growing number of folks in and out of the industry are wondering why testing screening isn't allowed.

Especially if its found that the cost of testing would wind up being less burdensome than the other regulations—such as the 30-month rule—since BSE was discovered.

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