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Articles from 2004 In February

South Dakota Sends Beef To Home State Troops in Iraq

Thanks to the beef checkoff, more than 2,700 lbs. of beef are headed to 750 National Guard men and women in six units serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"We really appreciate this outstanding effort on the part of beef producers," says Maj. Gen. Michael Gorman, commander of the South Dakota Air and Army National Guard. "I know our Guard members will be truly pleased to receive this taste from home."

Gorman was at the Sioux Falls, SD, post office on Monday to accept delivery of the 88 boxes of product from Nancy Montross, a DeSmet, SD, rancher and president of the South Dakota Beef Industry Council (SDBIC).

"Every one of the state's beef producers contributed to this project through the beef checkoff," Montross says. "Sending these beef products is a fitting way to show our thanks and support to these South Dakota men and women contributing so much with their service."

Montross says each Guard member will receive 10 packages of the beef product, vacuum-sealed and sent with a thank you from the South Dakota beef producers. The boxes of beef were sent by priority mail and Guard members were expected to be enjoying the beef products by the end of this week.

The 8,000 packages of beef jerky and beef sticks were produced and packaged by Howard Cold Storage in Howard, SD Additional beef producers helped box the product, prepare it for shipment and unload the boxes in Sioux Falls.

$1.28-Billion Jury Verdict Is A Double-Edged Sword

The suit claimed Tyson/IBP used captive cattle supplies to manipulate and control prices.

Of course, the legal wrangling in

Pickett vs. IBP

is far from over. Tyson has already asked the judge to set aside the verdict. And, in any event, the case will be appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Thus, the final resolution may be a year or two away.

It's important to note that the $1.28-billion figure isn't a damage award as is often stated, but a jury recommendation. That sum, which covers approximately 35,000 producers, equates to about $36,000 per covered producer.

The majority of cattlemen heralded the news as a major victory. They hope the decision represents the beginning of constraints on packers from exercising what they believe is packers' excessive market power and market leverage.

Of course, if the Tyson ruling is upheld on appeal, suits against Excel, Swift, etc., will be soon in coming. Some in the industry are comparing this case to the tobacco settlement in terms of its industry significance. Once the tobacco companies lost their first case, it was just a matter of time before they lost a flood of similar cases.

However, there remain legitimate questions about the verdict and whether it will survive appeal. For one, it was a very complex case, with a lot of conflicting economic theory and data presented throughout the trial. But, many legal analysts contend the jury's decision wasn't based so much on the facts as it was a reflection of current attitudes toward corporate America in the wake of scandals involving corporate greed.

Of course, the decision isn't without its detractors from the producer side. As one producer put it, "I'm half smiling and half nervous."

The detractors have several legitimate concerns. The first is that the decision will, in effect, stop many of the marketing arrangements producers have created, and will have a chilling effect on the move to branded products and value-added forms of production. Secondly, there's concern the verdict will encourage lawsuits on any type of marketing arrangement, resulting in locking the industry into a commodity marketplace forever.

Regardless of the final outcome, it will take several years to fully understand what the results will be for the industry.

Will the plaintiffs prevail against the packing industry? What will be the amount of damages if the ruling is upheld? How much will producers receive and how much will the lawyers take? What will be the ruling's effect on future marketing arrangements and the packing industry's willingness to enter into them?

This week's jury decision is likely to be a double-edged sword. The packing industry likely will be more cautious about entering into marketing arrangements that might be interpreted as having negative market effects, while producers wishing to sell outside of a commodity market (where packers hold the decidedly better hand) will be forever limited. Plus, this decision is likely to shift considerable risk back on to producers as they are forced to trade the daily cash market.

Not surprisingly, the two sides have drastically different takes on evidence provided at the trial. Tyson is convinced the data proved that supply and demand affect prices, and that legitimate business reasons exist for such marketing arrangements from both the packer and producer perspectives. Meanwhile, the plaintiffs say the ruling proves packers have utilized captive supplies to drive prices lower.

Regardless of which side of the fence you stand, this ruling is likely to move captive supply back to the front burner, and validate the process of using the courts for a remedy.

The Sulfate Type In Stock Water Affects Water Intake

Sulfate salts present a major problem for water quality in large parts of North America, particularly for range cattle. In the semi-arid climates where the majority of beef cattle are grazed, hot, dry summers contribute to sulfate problems through evaporation of surface waters. This leads to increasing sulfate concentrations as the summer progresses.

A white salt or "alkali" ring around the edge typically identifies ponds and dugouts containing high levels of sulfates, particularly later in the summer months when much of the standing water has evaporated. Mineral analysis of water samples in a laboratory can then be used to determine the actual sulfate salt concentration.

At high levels, sulfate salts can cause cattle to reduce their water consumption. When this happens, feed intake and feed efficiency are generally reduced and average daily weight gains are lowered. If water quality is very poor, cattle can suffer from dehydration. Sulfates also contribute to the development of polioencephalomalacia (polio), a metabolic disorder that can reduce productivity and result in death.

Not all sulfate salts are alike. Depending on local conditions, water high in sulfate may be mainly sodium sulfate (Na




; "Glauber salt"), magnesium sulfate (MgSO


; "Epsom salt"), or a combination of these and less prevalent salts.

Recent research conducted at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Range Research Unit in Kamloops, British Columbia, in conjunction with the University of British Columbia Animal Welfare Program, has shown that cattle respond differently to different sulfate salts. In a series of experiments, sodium sulfate and magnesium sulfate were tested for their effect on water consumption and animal health.

Yearling heifers and steers were group-housed in pens and provided water individually using electronic head gates. Cattle were exposed to either tap water or water containing sodium sulfate or magnesium sulfate for between 2 and 21 days at sulfate concentrations ranging from 500 to 4,500 parts per million (ppm). Individual water consumption and fecal dry matter were monitored.

When the water contained more than 3,000 ppm sulfate, cattle reduced their consumption. However, the response was stronger to magnesium sulfate than to sodium sulfate. With magnesium sulfate, as sulfate concentration increased, average daily water consumption dropped from about 40 liters (10.6 gals.) per day to only 13 liters (3.4 gals.) per day at 4,500 ppm sulfate. With sodium sulfate, the reduction wasn't as drastic. During the experiments some cattle objected so strongly to water containing 3,000 and 4,500 ppm sulfate that they didn't drink for two days.

After 21 days of drinking water containing 4,000 ppm sulfate as magnesium sulfate, cattle feces were significantly drier than when the same animals were drinking tap water. This suggests the animals were starting to become dehydrated. Over time, this low water consumption is likely to lead to reductions in feed intake and productivity.

Some final thoughts. Sulfate salts detract from the quality of a water source. They become a clear problem at concentrations of 3,000 ppm and above, and more so if magnesium sulfate is the predominant salt.

If producers are faced with high sulfate levels, they should closely monitor their cattle for reduced productivity or signs of illness such as polioencephalomalacia. Producers may be able to address this problem by moving their cattle to alternative sites, as good quality water is sometimes available in ponds and dugouts located near poor quality water. Running water is generally lower in sulfates and could be pumped to troughs. Alternatively, water may be brought in from outside sources.

David Fraser is a professor at the University of British Columbia's Animal Welfare program. Amanda Grout recently completed her M.Sc. and is a research assistant with the same program. Contact her at [email protected].

Beef Demand Offers A Tremendous Five-Year Story

In fact, since beef demand halted its slide in 1998, demand for beef has increased by 15.4%.

When the beef industry set its long-range-plan goal of increasing beef demand by 6% by the end of 2004, most thought it was a pipe dream. But, here we are at the start of 2004 and that goal has not only been accomplished a year ahead of schedule, but exceeded.

That record of achievement begs the following question: With the widespread support among producers for the checkoff, and in the wake of all of the checkoff's recent successes in spurring beef demand, ensuring consumer confidence, conveying our nutritional message, and helping develop new cuts and convenience-oriented products, will producers hold those who took away producers' ability to decide the checkoff by challenging it in the court system accountable?

BSE illustrates that the industry can't rest on its laurels. But, it's difficult to imagine anything close to as extensive and effective of an industry response to the BSE crisis without the tremendous job done by our state and national beef checkoff groups.

Still No Beef to Mad Cow Mania

Mad cow hysteria is once again frightening beef consumers and hammering the beef industry. It would be easy to blame ignorant media, opportunistic anti-meat activists and cutthroat business rivals for the current mania. But I won't.

The blame for the groundless alarm rests squarely on the shoulders of scientists who have given way too much aid and comfort to the still unproven notion that mad cow disease poses a risk to human health.

It is widely taken for granted among scientists that mad cow disease is caused by abnormal proteins called prions that somehow build up in the brain and damage it. These same scientists also believe that disease can be spread by consumption of tissue infected with prions.

Humans, so the story goes, allegedly can contract a supposed human-form of mad cow disease, called “new-variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease” or nvCJD, if they consume prion-containing tissue from an infected cow.

The alleged confirmation of this theory is the 150 or so human deaths attributed to nvCJD in Europe, mostly in the U.K., that have occurred since the mid-1990s following an outbreak of mad cow among British cattle.

Most of the scientists who buy into this theory are also quick to acknowledge that they believe the risk to human health is small but not zero, citing the relatively low number of deaths despite that hundreds of millions of Europeans who consumed millions of pounds of potentially infected British beef since the 1980s.

The prion theory has also been significantly propelled along by the fact that its developer, Stanley Pruisner of the University of California at San Francisco, won a Nobel Prize for it in 1997.

Despite Pruisner's Nobel Prize, however, it has not been scientifically established that prions cause any sort of disease — a fact only reluctantly acknowledged by organizations such as the National Academy of Science's National Research Council and the National Institutes of Health.

Despite almost 10 years of intense research into the causes and potential ramifications of mad cow disease, the prion theory still does not satisfy the basic scientific test known as Koch's Postulates for whether a particular microorganism, such as a prion, causes a specific disease, such as mad cow.

Developed by German physician and bacteriologist Robert Koch in 1890, the basic criteria of Koch's Postulates as applied to the prion theory would be:

  • prions are present in every case of the mad cow disease;

  • prions must be isolated from a diseased cow and grown in pure culture;

  • BSE should be reproduced when the cultured prions are inoculated into a healthy cow; and

  • the prion must be recoverable from the experimentally infected cow.

“The best-kept secret in this field is that [prions] in any form have never shown infectivity,” said the head of Yale University's surgery department to the United Press International's Steve Mitchell.

There certainly have been a few exceptions to Koch' Postulates, but no one has made a case for why prions might be another such exception.

Aside from the propulsion received by virtue of the Nobel Prize, Pruisner's prion theory seems to have been accepted as the explanation for mad cow simply by default — that is, no other explanations for BSE and nvCJD have been developed.

It's the same sort of shallow thinking that explains why the 150 nvCJD deaths are usually attributed to consumption of infected beef. There is, in fact, no evidence that the 150 victims of nvCJD even ate infected beef, but it is assumed they did because no other explanation has been developed for how they could have contracted nvCJD.

It's not likely that more affirmative-natured explanations will be forthcoming anytime soon.

As the UPI's Mitchell pointed out this week, virtually all of the $27 million the National Institutes of Health gave to researchers for work on mad cow-type diseases was directed toward prion theory research.

An NIH spokesmen told Mitchell that the reason for not allocating resources to non-prion research is that few researchers seem to be proposing that type of research.

Other researchers, including an anonymous NIH scientist, told Mitchell that the research community isn't applying for grants because the agency is biased against non-prion theories and will reject applications for such research.

It could very well be that some virus or bacterium is responsible for the mad cow-type diseases — but we might not ever know if NIH persists with its tunnel vision.

The merit of the prion theory seems to rest almost exclusively in the fact that its developer impressed a Nobel Prize committee. It would be much more impressive, however, if the prion theory satisfied Koch's Postulates.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of and an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute.

Manage your price risk

“Certainly, it was bad news, but so far it doesn't appear the sky is falling,” says Darrell Mark, Extension ag economist at the University of Nebraska.

Indeed, the worst fears that many producers harbored about what would happen to cattle prices if bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) ever turned up in the U.S. have so far remained unfounded.

Fed-cattle prices dropped 18-20% from $92/cwt. prior to the Dec. 23 announcement to the $75 cwt. they were fetching afterward, through Jan. 10.

Not coincidentally, that price decline mirrors the 1.6% decline in fed-cattle prices Mark would expect for each 1% increase in beef supply. In this case, the loss of export markets would account for a 14-16% decline in price. An additional 2-3% decline in fed cattle prices would be expected due to the loss of the hide and offal export market. Chalk the remainder up to the exaggerated impact that always rides shotgun with market shock.

The Future Looks Bright

“You can't minimize the loss of our export markets,” says Bill Helming, a leading agricultural economist, Olathe, KS. “We're looking at lower prices than had been predicted due to reduced export demand, and you can't underestimate the psychological impact on the market.”

However, Helming also believes there's plenty of room for optimism. In fact, he says, “It's very much in the realm of practicality and reality that we can be back to an $80-$100/cwt. trading range for fed cattle within the next two or three years, but not in 2004.”

In the meantime, the assumptions such a bullish prediction rests upon would make for prices that many would consider downright strong.

First, Helming points to the strength of U.S. beef demand prior to the Dec. 23 discovery of BSE. This was built on a number of factors including increased eating satisfaction and a growing array of convenience products fostered by the industry. In tandem with that, Helming points to consumers turning toward protein-rich diets in light of this nation's obesity and diabetes epidemics.

“Consumer demand for beef is real,” Helming says. “American consumers are intelligent. They're as comfortable with the safety and eating qualities of beef today as before the announcement.”

While it's early on in the BSE aftermath, Mark concurs, saying, “Every indication up to now is that the American consumer is reacting like the Canadian consumer did when BSE was discovered there.” Canadians rallied around the industry and never missed a consumptive beat on beef. So far, Americans have done the same.

Just as important, even with the extra beef to sell by way of lost export markets, Helming notes fundamentals say that beef supplies will remain tight.

“Clearly, we have excess feeding capacity. That won't change,” Helming says. “Clearly, it will be some time before live cattle from Canada are allowed back in the U.S. (750,000-1 million feeder cattle annually). At worst, herd liquidation will stabilize this year, but we won't begin rebuilding the cow herd.”

All told, Helming expects U.S. beef production to be 3.5% to 4% less this year than last.

Add this to his expectation that the U.S. will be able to resume export trade with Mexico in weeks rather than the months it will probably take with the rest of the world. “I believe a realistic trading range for fed cattle this year is $65-$85/cwt. ($75/cwt. average),” he says.

If things fall right, like Mexican exports opening soon and cattle feeders remaining current in their marketings, Helming says you could add another $5/cwt. to those projections.

As for feeder-weight cattle (basis 750 lbs.), Helming is calling for them to trade at $7-$10/cwt. premium to fed cattle. He expects feeder calves (basis 500-600 lbs.) to trade at an $18-$22/cwt. premium to fed cattle. Bounce that against the $75/cwt. fed-cattle average cited above and you're talking $82-$85/cwt. for feeders and $93-$97/cwt. for calves. Of course, this price scenario assumes there won't be any more catastrophic news.

Moreover, no one knows whether or not the market has found its BSE bottom.

“It all depends on so many things, including domestic demand, the speed and outcome of the BSE investigation and resumption of export trade” says Mark.

“In Canada,” he adds, “they didn't trade cattle for two or three weeks after BSE was discovered in May. When they did, cattle traded for $20/cwt. (US) less than before. Two months later, they bottomed out at $23/cwt. — $50/cwt. less than the pre-discovery price — when it became evident the export trade wasn't going to resume. So, there was a lagged economic effect there. We may not see that lagged effect here, but it's possible.”

Price Protection

In other words, Mark predicts producers can expect more price volatility in the coming weeks. Producers have already seen limit-down and limit-up moves in the futures market since the discovery.

“We'll continue to speculate in the markets on the resumption of export trade the way we speculated last summer on re-opening of the Canadian border,” Mark says.

This anticipated price volatility underscores the need for managing price risk. Whether it's through the use of forward contracts, futures hedges or options, Mark urges, “Look hard at protecting a breakeven and hard at finding a breakeven you can find protection for.”

Breakevens in the low- and mid-$70s are available, he says. It's cattle already in the feedlot with breakevens of more than $80/cwt. that will likely bear the economic brunt of the BSE incident.

Perhaps the biggest price wild card of all, however, is one that producers can ultimately control.

According to Helming, there were two primary reasons for the record prices enjoyed prior to BSE. One was the robust domestic and export demand. The other was currentness.

“The industry became as current as I can remember, going all the way back to the 1960s,” says Helming. “What the market actually does in 2004 will largely depend on the actions of cattle feeders. It's critical they remain current and don't let weights build.”

Helming doesn't think that will happen, though. Both in the near term and as far as the eye can see, he says, “I like beef's chances.”

I support ID and the downer ban

Individual animal identification is going to be implemented. It's now more important than ever, and it will happen much sooner than was projected. The industry needs to push for and lead the way in the development of identification and verification.

Consumer confidence may hinge upon the absolute certainty of knowing where a particular animal has been and the documentation of that information.

I also favor a ban on the harvest and rendering of downer animals. The public won't stand for it. By moral and legal restraint, downer and emaciated animals should never leave the place of origin.

Why should we accept any less? Far to many operators do a very good job of husbandry to allow a few downers to cast a shadow over the entire industry.
Donald V. Cobb, DVM
Casper, WY

Thanks For The BSE Coverage

I want to compliment the staff of BEEF Cow-Calf Weekly on the excellent job you're doing. I'm a high school agriculture teacher in California's Central Valley. BEEF Cow-Calf Weekly is used by my students as a source of current events. I wish to emphasize the word “current.”

The topics on the economics of the beef business have always been on top of the issues and trends, but your coverage of BSE was great. The articles on BSE were direct and to the point without any bias.

As a teacher of high school agriculture, one of my goals is to give students an understanding and appreciation of the agriculture industry. Your publication is a great tool.
Tony Traini
Ag teacher/FFA advisor
Waterford, CA

Special BSE Issue Helped Us Out

Thanks for including the “Talking Points” feature in the special BSE issue of BEEF Cow-Calf Weekly published on Christmas Eve. Shortly after receiving the issue my father, Jim, got a phone call from our local newspaper. Having seen the information in your newsletter, I was able to print it off and give it to him so he was able to provide informed facts to our local paper.

By the way, our whole family is going out for steak dinner tonight.
Rachel Williams
Ranch House Designs/V8 Ranch
College Station, TX

Editor's note: For a free subscription to BEEF Cow-Calf Weekly, sign up at The newsletter is e-mailed each Friday afternoon.

Surveillance Vs. Safeguards

U.S. producers are quickly learning that even though they and USDA had created the safest food supply in the world, some cracks are showing up in the glaring light of international scrutiny.

Policies and regulations that made perfect sense before the first U.S. case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) suddenly appear haphazard, deficient or illogical.

For instance, even though DNA confirmed the infected cow was from Canada, she was discovered here. Worse, by the time her test came back positive two weeks later her carcass was in eight states and Guam.

So, why was a cow tested for BSE passed into commerce before results were known?

The decision to ship or hold carcasses before test results are known was left up to plant management, says Lisa Ferguson, senior staff veterinarian for USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the previous policy. “Any that had classical clinical symptoms would have hopefully been condemned,” she says.

USDA modified this policy in a flurry of rules it pronounced a week after the BSE news broke. Inspectors can no longer mark cattle tested for BSE as “inspected and passed” until a negative confirmation is received. Also, downer cattle are now prohibited from slaughter. Instead, they go to the renderer.

Apparently, the infected cow was non-ambulatory due to a calving injury but showed no BSE-associated symptoms. Ken Petersen of the Food Safety Inspection Service says veterinarians identified clinical symptoms of neurological disorder in 130 animals tested out of 19,777 head in 2002.

USDA conducted BSE tests on 20,277 brain samples last year, 75% of those on non-ambulatory cattle. What are the odds the infected cow, if mobile at harvest, would have been tested? Or, that she would have been among downers harvested last year that weren't tested? What are the odds one like her has slipped through?

“Very low,” Ferguson says. “First, the Harvard Risk Analysis demonstrates that even if introduced, the likelihood of spreading is very low. Also, there's the fact we've done surveillance since 1997. Can we positively assure that didn't happen? No. Do we think it's likely it has happened? No we don't.”

For one thing, APHIS's “national approach to BSE surveillance” includes targeting the cattle population at most risk for BSE to be among the sample group tested. That means animals with clinical BSE symptoms, followed by downers.

For another, USDA began implementing BSE prevention measures 15 years ago. This included a ban of live ruminants and ruminant-derived products from countries where BSE was known to exist in native cattle.

Current surveillance testing is based on the Harvard Risk Analysis. The statistical model is designed to find one BSE case in a million, based on 12,500 samples. USDA could conduct only 433 tests/year and meet the standards set by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE).

So, the testing USDA had been doing exceeded OIE recommendations. Even before the U.S. case, USDA says it planned to double the number of cattle tested for BSE this year to more than 40,000 head.

New Testing Regulations?

Would USDA consider testing all cattle at harvest? Ron DeHaven, USDA chief veterinary officer, says USDA feels “very comfortable” about its program, given what's known about the disease and the U.S. exposure to it. He adds, however, that the BSE incident makes it “prudent” to examine the current program and make needed changes.

“One of the things we're looking at is additional testing, and what populations of cattle would be appropriate for that additional testing,” he says.

Testing is a prickly issue. Keith Belk, a Colorado State University meat safety expert, says no amount of testing can ensure a product is safe. “Detecting for disease prevelance is certainly a reason to test. However, more important and scientifically valid reasons to test are to verify the effectiveness of the firewalls put into place to prevent the occurance of risk,” he says.

Plus, what do you test? BSE is thought to have an incubation period of three to six years before either clinical symptoms are visible or it's detectible by current tests. European Union (EU) countries are testing cattle older than 24 or 30 months of age, depending on the country. Japan tests every head at harvest.

Next, which test to use? USDA employs an immunohistochemistry (IHC) test, which OIE considers the gold standard. But it's impractical for high-volume testing. Other countries use rapid tests to screen animals, then confirm with the IHC test.

The IHC test identifies the effect of abnormal prions — the causative BSE infection agent — by detecting the brain damage they cause, says Jim Koziarz of Abbott Laboratories. Rapid tests identify the presence of abnormal prions.

“Consequently, the rapid tests can detect the presence of prions in cattle that exhibit none of the clinical symptoms we associate with BSE,” Koziarz explains.

Abbott is exclusive distributor of a rapid test developed by Enfer Scientific of Ireland, one of a handful available. All the rapid tests are relatively the same because all must attack the problem similarly, Koziarz says.

That means taking a brain sample, identifying it to the carcass, grinding it to release abnormal prions, centrifuging off debris, then pre-treating what's left with an enzyme that digests all proteins but the prion. From there, it's a simple Enzyme-linked Immuno-absorbant Assay (ELISA) using antibodies to detect the infectious agent. This can be done in less than four hours, about the same time that carcasses chill before fabrication.

The difference among the tests, Koziarz says, is user-friendliness and ability to mix into the production flow of a harvest facility.

Regardless of test type, if USDA moves to increase testing in a big way, it's not just flipping a switch. Notwithstanding the time involved with the IHC test, laboratory capacity to handle such volume is questionable.

That may be why USDA recently began accepting license applications for BSE rapid tests. Albeit, the fact that non-ambulatory cattle will no longer be going to slaughter will make it tougher to find and test members of this key risk population.

DeHaven says it could take up to a year or more to license rapid tests. USDA doesn't want to be caught needing such tests, then beginning the licensing process, he adds.

Even with rapid tests, Koziarz says it will take time to build and expand capacity. But he says, tests like Abbott's are scalable. In fact, the Enfer test is used in 13 countries. He estimates it could be scaled for widespread U.S. use within 12 months.

Plugging Related Gaps

Besides testing cattle, there's also the issue of enforcing the U.S. ban on feeding ruminant-derived protein (meat-and-bone meal) to other ruminants. Implemented in 1997, the ban is key to the nation's current BSE surveillance program. The problem is that compliance is a major question mark.

A 2002 General Accounting Office (GAO) report concluded the “FDA has not acted promptly to force firms to keep prohibited proteins out of cattle feed, and to label animal feed that cannot be fed to cattle.” In addition, the GAO report called FDA's inspections data “severely flawed” and left the agency “unaware of the full extent of industry compliance.”

Even if it's all under control these days, one must wonder how tight the system was before the report?

Also, why isn't USDA tracking down all Canadian cattle imports to the U.S. like it did British imports in 1989 when BSE was discovered in the UK?

“This situation is different,” Ferguson says. British imports represented significantly higher risk due to the absence of ruminant-to-ruminant feed regulations at that time, she says. Also, “we didn't have the knowledge in place that we have now.”

Back then, little was known about BSE or how beef industries in BSE-affected countries operated. Since U.S.-Canada trade is integrated and shares many firewalls, USDA is more familiar and comfortable with the risk of Canada's cattle population, she adds.

No doubt there will likely be other changes in policy as the BSE investigation unfolds. There's also little doubt about who will wield the most pressure for change.

“Scientists will discuss what is appropriate, given the likelihood of risk,” Belk says. “Ultimately it will end up in the politicians' court. It becomes an issue of public acceptance of risk.”