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BSE Merry-Go-Round Is Greased, Stoked And Whirling

Relatively speaking, the announcement this week of a third case of BSE in the U.S. seems to have passed with little more than a yawn, at least where the media was concerned. On the evening of the March 13 BSE confirmation announcement by USDA, I tried to tune into the major networks' evening news shows. Neither ABC, NBC, CBS or Fox News led off with the story. In fact, "NBC News with Brian Williams" finally made a very brief -- less than 10 seconds -- mention of the story about 15-20 minutes into the broadcast.

Meanwhile, Reuters reported that, among the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, USA Today and Wall Street Journal (WSJ), only WSJ gave the BSE story front-page treatment.

Even R-CALF, which not long ago was canoodling with anti-meat "consumer" groups to alert Americans to the Biblical-style plague if Canadian beef were allowed into the U.S., sent out a statesmen-like news release stressing the safety of the U.S. beef supply.

Still, there were calls in Congress for action on downer animals, a heightened feed ban and more urgency on a mandatory livestock ID system.

To be sure, the news earlier this week of a third case of BSE in the U.S. made for some high anxiety among those hoping and working for the reopening of important Pacific Rim markets still off-limits to U.S. beef exports. The big one, of course, is Japan, which re-shuttered its market to U.S. beef after just a month, following the discovery in Tokyo of attached vertebrae in a U.S. shipment of veal.

Meanwhile, the taffy pulling continues with South Korea, which has agreed to reopen its market to boneless U.S. beef from animals 30 months of age or less. The final steps of that agreement are in process, with the first shipments anticipated to arrive in April.

The question on everyone's mind is: "How will this latest BSE episode affect all these negotiations?"

The U.S. further sneezed into the soup when Hong Kong inspectors found bone shards last Friday in a shipment of boneless beef products from a Swift Beef Co. plant in Colorado. Hong Kong had partially lifted its two-year ban on imports of U.S. beef in December, with the stipulation only boneless beef from cattle less than 30 months old is allowed for export. Hong Kong has barred the Greeley plant from further exports.

The Hong Kong news served to stoke up concern among some Japanese consumers because the Swift plant was among the 11 U.S. plants toured and approved by a Japanese inspection team in mid December.

Incidentally, Japan confirmed its 23rd and 24th case of domestic BSE. The latest case, confirmed today, was the first case in a beef animal in Japan. All others being dairy cows.

Then to top it off came more news this week that USDA planned to continue with its planned scaling back of its expanded surveillance program for BSE. Though those close to the issue realize the program was always intended to be temporary, the timing of the story -- coming on the heels of a newly discovered case -- seemed to others as more evidence of USDA's detachment from reality on the whole BSE issue.

Taken together, these incidents not only had a lot of folks questioning the U.S. commitment to, and USDA's oversight of, living up to the agreed-upon protocols, it had a lot of folks, particularly in the U.S. beef industry, flummoxed, flabbergasted and furious. And rightly so. -- Joe Roybal