Is the U.S. a different case than Europe?

April 6, 2001 by Jeffrey A. Nelson

An internationally-recognized group of scientists last year assessed the risk of BSE in the US to be the same as the risk of Austria. Austria recently announced that it "wants to know if it has BSE in its cows," and has voluntarily adopted testing standards set by the European Commission, and is testing a large segment of their cows. The US, however, does not currently wish to look further and see whether or not BSE exists here.

The Scientific Steering Committee of the European Union conducted an elaborate risk assessment for a wide variety of countries, the results of which were published in July of 2000.

Prepared by independent experts who applied innovative, complex methodology to data that were voluntarily supplied by the responsible country authorities, the project is a series of scientific reports on the relative BSE risks of various countries in the world.

Two reports are of special interest: the report on Austria and the report on the U.S.A. (see report listings at: )

The sophisticated analysis examined data from each country and assessed: "External Challenges" relating to BSE - what feed was used, did imports from known BSE-countries take place, how much and over what periods; and "Internal Challenges" - how possible was multiplication of BSE in that country? Did they ban feeding cows to cows, and if so when? How well did a given country respond and place deactivation procedures in place?

Four different BSE risk classes were established by the researchers. The classes are based on calculations of the likelihood of the presence of one or more cattle clinically or pre-clinically infected with BSE in the country. The risk categories and their definitions were as follows:

Risk Category
I Highly unlikely
II Unlikely but not excluded
IlI Likely but not confirmed or confirmed, at a lower level
IV Confirmed, at a higher level

Most European countries were class III or IV. At the time of publication, Germany was in Risk Class III: "Likely but not confirmed or confirmed, at a lower level."

Austria was in risk class II: "unlikely but not excluded." (pdf file)

The US was in the same category as Austria, based on an analysis of data provided to researchers by the US government. The report on the US concludes, "it is unlikely but cannot be excluded that domestic cattle are (clinically or pre-clinically) infected with the BSE-agent." (pdf file)

It's important to note that the Risk Class II rating for the U.S. was based on information provided to researchers by the USDA. That data included noting measures had been set in place in 1997 in the U.S. to end the practice of feeding cow protein back to cows.

Researchers doing risk assessment did not check to see whether the data they received was accurate. A GAO study done in January 2001 revealed that nearly 70% of U.S. feed mills at that time were not following the 1997 rules, and 20% were not even aware of the rules. Additionally, in hearings before the U.S. Senate on April 5, 2001, there was testimony that the FDA does not have the manpower to enforce the laws even in plants that are aware of them.

Thus, although risk assessment researchers were told that the U.S. had measures in place to end practices known to spread mad cow, the reality is those measures weren't widely implemented or enforced, but largely ignored.

Thus, it is very possible the researchers who assessed the U.S. BSE risk as Class II in July of 2000 might not have done so if they knew that the reported U.S. measures had not actually been widely implemented.

One of the reasons Austria was placed as lower risk than other countries in the area was that they only used soy from the US as protein feed for their cows. Austria did not import meat and bone meal for their cattle, as some other European countries had. (This stems from a policy in Austria instituted after World War II, which is still in force today.)

Austria recently decided to begin the same intensive testing many other countries in the Europe Union have already instituted. They are using the Swiss rapid test, Prionics. They were not obligated to do this testing. However, that didn't stop the Austrian government. Their stated position is, "If we have mad cow in our herd, we want to know." As a result, Austria is now testing every cow in the country slaughtered over the age 30 months.

Although the US is in exactly the same situation as Austria in terms of BSE risk, the US has not expressed the same desire as Austria to take testing measures which can better determine if BSE is in the US herd. No laws from the US government have been made, as in Austria, mandating the tracking of cattle to insure compliance with mandatory BSE testing.

Instead, the USDA and cattle spokesmen have effectively opted to assert the US cattle industry should be in Category I risk assessment, by claiming simply that "We don't have BSE here."

If the US cattle industry is so certain of their position, why are they averse to using the latest scientific testing methods and sample sizes to demonstrate to the American consumer that we are BSE-free? Why is the U.S. government not taking the same precautions as the government of Austria, and doing everything possible to insure the safety of the food their citizens consume?

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