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March cow madness

USDA confirmed the nation's third case of BSE, a crossbred beef cow in Alabama.

Just before press time, USDA confirmed the nation's third case of BSE, a crossbred beef cow in Alabama.

Interestingly none of the major networks led off their March 13 evening newscasts with the news. 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.

Still, newspaper editorials preached for stricter controls on downer animals and livestock feed. And members of Congress, consumer groups and the media called for more urgency on a national system of mandatory livestock ID.

By March 20, USDA had exhumed the cow, a non-ambulatory animal that had been examined by a local vet, who euthanized it and submitted tissue samples for testing. The animal was then buried on the Alabama farm where it had lived for about a year.

Initially reported to be Santa Gertrudis, USDA later said she was believed to be a red crossbred (possibly crossed with a Santa Gertrudis or similar breed). Dentition following exhumation confirmed she was more than 10 years old, which means she was born prior to implementation of the Food and Drug Administration's 1997 feed ban.

At press time, officials had traced the animal back to its last owner and were interviewing workers at the auction where the Alabama farmer bought the cow. Also learned was the cow had at least two offspring — a 6-week-old calf now under quarantine and study, and a bull calf born the year before that died of natural causes.

The BSE news had little effect on domestic cattle markets. Of more concern were possible ramifications on Pacific Rim markets still off-limits to U.S. beef. The big one is Japan, which re-shuttered its market to U.S. beef following the Tokyo discovery in mid January of vertebrae in a U.S. shipment of veal. USDA described the incident as an isolated error, and is pushing Japan to reopen its markets to U.S. beef.

As has happened with BSE ever since the first U.S. case in late December 2003, there were further related shoes to fall.

On March 10, the day USDA announced an “inconclusive” test on the suspect Alabama cow, inspectors in Hong Kong found bone, later described as cartilage, in a shipment of boneless beef from Swift Beef's Greeley, CO, plant. Hong Kong lifted its two-year ban on U.S. beef imports in December, with the stipulation only boneless beef from cattle less than 30 months of age is eligible for export.

Swift issued a March 13 release acknowledging the suspension from Hong Kong export of products from its Greeley facility. It also stressed the issue wasn't a food safety issue but a “minor quality issue” and “within acceptable tolerances under the U.S.-Hong Kong Beef Export Verification Program.” That's probably not the best defense with which to reassure skittish Asians.

Taken together, however, the result was South Korea, which had anticipated reopening its market to U.S. beef in early April, implied it likely would be longer, at least a month. The Hong Kong incident also stoked up concern in Japan because the Swift plant was one of 11 U.S. plants toured and approved by a Japanese inspection team in mid December.

Then to top it off came news USDA planned to continue with its scheduled scaling back of its expanded BSE surveillance program. Though the program, initiated in June 2004, was intended to be temporary (12-18 months), the timing seemed to some as more evidence of USDA's detachment from reality on the whole BSE issue.