On Tuesday, April 24, USDA released a statement confirming a case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) from a cow in California. The cow did not enter the food chain. There is no threat to the American beef supply. BSE never poses a threat to the milk supply. A single case of BSE does not pose a threat to American Beef cattle. This animal tested positive for ‘atypical BSE’, a very rare form of the disease not generally associated with an animal consuming infected feed. American Farmers, Ranchers, and the USDA have done a fantastic job of controlling this disease. In 2011, there were only 29 worldwide cases of BSE, a dramatic decline and 99% reduction since the peak in 1992 of 37,311 cases. Our food safety measures worked and the food supply remains safe.

What is BSE?

Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), commonly called “mad cow disease,” is a degenerative neurological disease of cattle that is caused by misfolded proteins (called prions) that build up in the central nervous system (CNS) and eventually kill nerve cells.

Is BSE a Public Health concern?

  • In 2007, the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) classified the United States as a controlled risk country in regard to BSE, meaning U.S. regulatory controls are effective and fresh beef and products from cattle of all ages is safe.
  • The modeling experts at Harvard’s Center for Risk Analysis reported in 2003 that a detailed analysis shows the food safety measures in place reduce an already very small potential for human exposure to BSE infectivity.
  • The results of a 2005 study published in the journal Lancet also provided scientific evidence about the effectiveness of current measures to protect against BSE. According to the study’s lead researcher, “Our results provide reassurance that BSE screening procedures combined with CNS (central nervous system – brain and spinal tissue) removal are effective measures to protect the human food chain.”

What is the USDA doing to ensure food safety?

For more than 20 years the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been developing and implementing a robust system of safeguards to ensure a BSE-free food supply.  In 2011, there were only 29 worldwide cases of BSE, a dramatic decline and 99% reduction since the peak in 1992 of 37,311 cases.

Tissues that could potentially carry BSE in an animal – including the brain and spinal cord – must be removed from cattle prior to processing, and therefore are not allowed into the food supply. This step along with other safeguards ensures BSE has no effect on public health.

The United States began an active BSE surveillance program in 1990 and, since its inception, more than 1 million cattle at greatest risk for BSE have been tested. USDA’s ongoing BSE surveillance program tests approximately 40,000 high-risk cattle annually. This program is rigorous and exceeds international guidelines by 10 times.

In June 2004, USDA instituted a one-time expanded testing program to determine the incidence of BSE in the United States. From June 1, 2004 through Aug. 20, 2006, USDA tested 787,711 cattle and found just two BSE positives.

Research has found the estimated prevalence of BSE in the United States to be less than one infected animal per 1 million adult cattle. (In perspective, the state of Tennessee alone has almost 1 million head of cattle).

News and Information on BSE

  • For more information and resources on BSE, please visit BSEinfo.org
  • Beef Magazine has a page, continually updated with the latest news and information links.
  • MSNBC covered the story Tuesday evening.
  • Feedstuffs Agriculture News shared information about BSE and how it initially affected cattle markets.
  • The Vice Chair of National Cattlemen’s Cattle Health and Well-being committee shares her personal thoughts on beef safety.