Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy
Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), widely referred to as “mad cow disease,” was first diagnosed in 1986 in Great Britain. The Department continues to work with federal and state partners to conduct surveillance and to prevent the introduction of BSE from foreign sources. Listed below are some Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s) regarding this disease.
Q. What is BSE?
A. Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), referred to in the press as Mad Cow Disease, is a degenerative neurological disease of cattle caused by an abnormal protein called a prion. There is strong scientific evidence indicating that BSE can be transmitted to humans causing a variant form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD). There have been less than 300 human cases reported worldwide. The risk to human health from BSE in the United States is extremely low.
Q. Is BSE Contagious?
A. No, it's important to note that BSE is not a contagious disease; spread occurs through the ingestion of infected material, generally brain or spinal cord tissue.
Q. What has been done to prevent BSE occurrence in the United States?
A. Since 1989, live ruminants have been prohibited entry into the United States from countries that have had cases of BSE. High-risk ruminant materials from these countries have also been prohibited entry. Since 1997, there has been an FDA feed ban to prohibit the use of mammalian protein in the production of ruminant feeds.
Q. Do we have BSE in the United States?
A. In December 2003, a dairy cow went down after calving, was tested, and was found positive for BSE in the state of Washington. This is the only case of BSE ever reported in the United States and this animal was traced to a Canadian herd that was sold in a herd sale dispersal. Although a coordinated, effective response was made by the cattle industry, and State and Federal officials, public concern nationally and internationally was very high. Good communications deflected a panic here, with little impact on domestic marketing, but many of our markets around the world were closed to U.S. beef, a number of those remaining closed today.
Q. If we have had only one case, why increase our testing?
A. There has been a public outcry for more BSE testing, with the United States being targeted for criticism. Since the December case, an international team of scientists recommended that we do a one-time, large-scale testing effort to detect whether BSE is present in the U.S. cattle population and, if so, at what level. In response to this and to further assure the public and our markets, USDA has set a goal of testing more than 250,000 target cattle over an 18 month period. This would detect 1 positive case in a million animals with a 95% confidence rate. Florida's goal is to collect 4,000 samples. As of May 2005, approximately 322,763 samples from targeted animals have been tested in the U.S. and approximately 3,764 from Florida with no positive results. Between 2006 and 2011, over 220,000 additional samples have been tested nationwide.
Q. What animals should be tested?
A. Target cattle include those over 30 months of age which exhibit at least one of the following: Downers or non-ambulatory, those able to stand only for brief periods, those with nervous signs, and those condemned, moribund, emaciated and dead cattle. Cattle with nervous signs less than 30 months of age may also be tested. FSIS is now required to test all pre-slaughter condemned cattle.
Q. What tests are used and how are results reported?
A. Brain tissue samples are required for testing; thus, there are no live animal tests. The IHC test is considered the definitive test but must be conducted in national laboratories and may take a week or more to complete. Rapid tests called ELISA tests (which can be done within 24 hours) have been approved as screening tests. The ELISA test will report negative or inconclusive results, with inclusive samples immediately sent to a national laboratory for further testing. Producer confidentiality is extremely important. We are working to ensure that any inconclusive results are not reported out with respect to producers or even to the state of origin.
Q. How will we identify cattle to be sampled?
A. We are currently working with renderers who handle the bulk of these cattle to arrange for sample collection. We are also urging producers and veterinary practitioners to assist by reporting downers and other cattle in those target groups for sample collection.
Q. What about cost recovery to practitioners, producers, and plants?
A. There are USDA guidelines in place for cost recovery payments. Payments will be made to individuals under agreement and can include sample collection and submission, carcass storage, transportation of carcasses, disposal of carcasses, fees for accredited veterinarians and cost recovery for stored meat-and-bone meal/rendered products.
Q. How important is this testing?
A. It is important to test as many target animals in Florida as possible as part of the national testing program to provide greater assurance to the consumer public and to support our domestic and international marketing of beef. While BSE is extremely rare in the United States, without proper testing, we cannot obtain the confidence of our consumers and our domestic and foreign markets.
Q. Who do I call to request testing or receive additional program information?
A. Information about surveillance in Florida: United States Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services, Veterinary Services, at (352) 313-3060.
**For the latest information on Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) please visit the USDA BSE information page.