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Can we just get over BSE?
Last Monday, an all too familiar scenario unfolded. It started with press reports of another possible case of Mad Cow disease, or BSE, in Canada. There were veiled hints by government spokespersons and lots of hysterical speculation in the press.

Finally, about mid-day on Monday, the press conference came and the beleaguered Canadian officials confirmed another cow had tested positive for the disease. This time, however, there were a few noticeable differences.

First the whole thing was quick. No long waiting period while samples were shipped around the world for confirmatory tests. This helped move the story off page one in a matter of days. In addition, Canadian and U.S. officials used a different tactic this time around. Dr. Brian Evans, chief veterinarian for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, (CFIA) told reporters, “Canada will be BSE free, but on the road to BSE freedom we will have these occasional cases from time to time.”

He went on to explain that the discovery of this animal was proof that the Canadian testing and inspection system was working, and the age of the animal (69 months) proved the feed ban was working. In other words, he said, Yeh, we got BSE, so what…get over it. He may have actually said this in French, but it was lost in translation.

Another difference from the way positive BSE tests have been handled in the past is that no one at the USDA pushed the panic button. There was no gathering of grim-faced, top USDA leaders expressing concern over the issue while reassuring the public U.S. beef was safe to eat. All we got was a tersely worded written statement from USDA Secretary Johanns saying there would be no change in the U.S. policy toward the importing of Canadian beef or live cattle.

Wow, what a difference: no panic, no trade embargoes, no market-paralyzing uncertainty. Does this mean BSE is finally being seen for what it is a herd health not a human health issue? As Dr. Evans pointed out, the latest BSE discovery is consistent with what we already know about how this disease develops and progresses. It shows that there are still a few very old animals wandering around who have or are likely to develop the disease. In fact, I have had U.S. veterinarians tell me, off the record, they believe there are still a few old BSE infected cows in the U.S. but we have not found them yet.

There are still people and organizations and governments who want to use BSE to their own advantage. For them, stirring the pot of prion panic helps advance their agenda. The Japanese, for example, slammed their market shut after a few bone fragments were found in one shipment of U.S. veal. I have always found it curious that a nation that has had 22 cases of BSE and whose consumers regularly eat raw fish and sea weed and wash it down with Sake as strong as anhydrous ammonia are so skittish about the quality of our beef.

It is time to get over the Mad Cow madness. BSE is a serious disease, and we must maintain the safeguards to protect herd and human health. But we must also trade freely and eat confidently. Perhaps the next positive test will be left in the farm press where it belongs.

This farm news was published in the February 1, 2006 issue of Farm World.