Eight Years Later, U.S. Makes Mad Cow Disease Policy

Almost a decade after the massive outbreak, the USDA is moving to adopt international standards on beef.

After years of dragging their feet, U.S. officials are preparing to adopt international beef standards. (Photo: cyanocorax/Creative Commons)
Megan is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

It's taken eight years, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) appears to finally be adopting a policy that will bring the U.S. up to speed—and in line with science—on mad cow disease.

Long before the first infected cow in the U.S. showed up in Yakima Valley, Washington, many other nations had started to fret the spread of the progressive neurological disorder. The United Kingdom had experienced as many as 1,000 new cases a week during its peak mad cow epizootic in 1993. But while other countries adopted policies to safeguard their beef from mad cow, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE, the U.S. held out.

Despite three incidents of infected cows—the first turned out to be a Canadian cow, but two others turned up in Texas and Alabama—the U.S. continued to demand high health standards from other countries while failing to reciprocate.

Desperate to revive its industry, the U.S. made every effort to resume trade with foreign countries. While many acquiesced, Japan and China still held out on grounds that standards within the U.S. weren't up to snuff.Three billion dollars in trade later, the damage was evident: some countries were not willing to accept meat from a country whose lax policies left its beef open to disease. 

Late last week, however, the tides began to turn. Dr. John Clifford, the USDA's chief veterinarian, requested comments on a proposed rule that would align the U.S. with international import guideline standards. 

According to the USDA, the proposed rule would "bring our BSE import regulations in line with international animal health standards that call for countries to base their trade policies on the actual risk of animals or products harboring the disease."

Food Safety News reports that "under those criteria, the United States is considered a 'controlled risk' country. USDA would like to achieve 'negligible risk' status." It appears the rule will pass.

So what, exactly, will the rule do for the beef industry? 

"If the proposed rule is finalized," says the USDA's Veterinary Services Fact Sheet, "APHIS [Animal Plant Health Inspection Service] import regulations for BSE would be more science-based. As a result, commodities that are now restricted but pose no risk for BSE could be imported. Commodities that present a risk of BSE would continue to be restricted."

The Fact Sheet elaborates on the differences of regulations before and after the rule: 

The current regulations prohibit the improtation of live ruminants and most ruminant products from regions that have BSE or that present an undue risk for BSE. The regulations are less restrictive for ruminants and ruminant products from BSES minimal-risk regions (currently only Canada). Additionally, the regulations allow the importation of boneless beef from Japan even though Japan is listed as a region that has BSE.

The comprehensive rule would change all of these and incorportate a risk-based approach consistent with international animal health guidelines and scientific understanding. As one example, boneless beef is currently prohibited from most countries that have had a case of BSE. Scientific knowledge and international guidelines show that boneless beef does not present a risk of BSE transmisison. Therefore, in the proposed rule, boneless beef would not be restricted due to BSE.

While no cases of mad cow disease have turned up in the U.S. since 2006, the adoption of new policies will likely add a boost of legitimacy to the U.S.'s beef export industry. For beef exporters, that's a little reminder of where the term "cash cow" came from.

In a conference call with the media, Clifford drove this point home. "This rule will...assist us to reopen markets or open new markets, and bring us in line with OIE standards that we have asked other countries to comply with," he said.

Read the full USDA Fact Sheet here.

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