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HUNTIN' DAYLIGHT -- BSE LESSONS BEAR LEARNING

by: Wes Ishmael

“Testing all cattle (for BSE) was and still is the major cause of delays in trade negotiations with the United States,” says Dr. Yoshiro Ozawa of Japan, an honorary advisor to the World Organization for Animal Health. He was speaking at the recent International Livestock Congress (ILC) meeting on The Global Prevention and Management of Foreign Animal Disease.

When BSE first surfaced internationally, Ozawa explains that the Japanese government assured consumers that the disease didn't exist in Japan. When it was discovered there they attempted to allay consumer concerns by adopting a policy of testing all harvested beef animals for BSE. In essence, they told consumers that beef tested for BSE was safe to eat, while beef not tested for BSE was suspect.

“Risk communication on BSE in Japan was misleading, the mass media tend to exaggerate BSE risks, and consumers tend to demand zero risk,” says Ozawa.

Perception, after all, continues to be the currency of reality.

That's the challenge of assuaging the suspicions Japanese consumers have about U.S. beef or beef from any other country that is not tested for BSE. That's the challenge of getting a second chance when the ball is dropped as spectacularly as it was with the bone-in veal shipped to that country which led to the renewed ban on U.S. beef.

It's also why every subsequent misstep by USDA and those exporting beef will negate more negotiating power than it otherwise would.

For instance, when Hong Kong announced in March it had received a bone fragment in a shipment of U.S. beef, the finding was not just a matter between that country and the U.S. It added fuel to the growing likelihood that Japan will resume U.S. beef trade lots later than sooner. It certainly encouraged South Korea to wait longer on trade talks with the U.S.

When Policy Runs Ahead of Science

With the benefit of hindsight, USDA set the stage for this mushrooming mountain-from-molehill rhetoric long before Japan and other countries began to resume U.S. beef shipments.

Multi-national BSE experts at the ILC meeting pointed out former Agriculture Secretary Anne Venneman unwittingly painted the U.S. into the loser's corner when she requested that an international panel review the Harvard BSE Risk Assessment. Rather than stand firm on science, in essence, she questioned the very science the U.S. based its BSE surveillance efforts upon and invited other nations to question that science, too.

Other standards, protocols and policies—or the lack of them—continue to add fuel to the fire. Declaring BSE test results as only positive or negative, for instance, ignores the science surrounding atypical BSE cases; many experts believe the first native-born case announced last summer was atypical.

Never mind the publicly perceived bumbling lack of common sense that has permeated USDA actions surrounding these matters. Announcing false positives to the public before confirmatory testing (USDA's original policy) comes to mind.

One of the most recent examples of ignoring public perception came with USDA's announcement in March that it was reducing its Enhanced BSE Surveillance program. The announcement was made just a couple of days after the world learned of America's latest BSE case. Yes, the BSE surveillance system works. Obviously, USDA had been planning to reduce the enhanced program for a while; and they said all along it would be reduced at some point. But, to make the announcement at a time when domestic and international consumers had new reason to wonder about U.S. beef boggles the minds of even the most primitive logicians.

Such miscues have stolen the spotlight from the effective BSE prevention and control measures the U.S. already had in place to keep the disease outside the country for more than a decade before the first case was discovered here in 2003.

The U.S. Challenge

The damage done by allowing policy to run ahead of or over the top of science is still unfolding with BSE.

What about U.S. response to other Foreign Animal Diseases (FAD) or cattle diseases that may have links to human disease?

As long as cattle are part of the landscape in any country FAD's like Foot and Mouth Disease remain a possibility, if they're not already endemic. The emergence of other diseases like highly pathogenic Avian Influenza can be predicted—sort of anyway—as with current expectations that this disease will make its way to the U.S. by next fall. Then there are ones like Johne's, which many veterinarians classify as a ticking bomb.

If there is a single lesson to be gleaned from the U.S. BSE experience it may be that future disease challenges could prove devastating unless industry and government get their arms wrapped around the science, practical levels of risk and how to communicate that to consumers.

Sometimes in football and always in public relations, aggressive, meticulous offense is the most effective defense.

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