PROSSER - Dr. Rory Meyer of the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, a division of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), was the featured speaker at the Washington State University Research Center in Prosser Thursday afternoon.
Meyer spoke about a testing program USDA has in place to test cattle for Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), better known as "Mad Cow" disease.
BSE had been a problem in England for more than a decade, where the cattle supply was nearly annihilated. The BSE problem came to North America last year, first hitting Canada in May 2003. BSE struck the United States in December 2003 when a cow in nearby Mabton was diagnosed with the disease.
BSE is a neurological disease in cattle. The disease is mainly passed in cattle by feed. However, the disease can also be passed genetically, said Meyer. Until bans were put into place on the type of feed that could be used, cattle were fed meat and bone meal to help provide the animals with needed protein and calcium.
Meyer said the USDA and other agencies spent six to seven weeks investigating the first BSE case to ever hit the United States. Meyer said that the BSE cow in Mabton, which was exported from Canada, and the cow with BSE found in Alberta, Canada, at one time were kept within 50 to 100 miles of each other.
Meyer, though, said the risk is extremely low for BSE to become a problem in the U.S. like it was in England. He cited a 2001 study done by Harvard University that said with all the safety measures the United States has in place to prevent BSE, the risk for the disease to spread like it did in England is extremely low.
"Even if we were to get it, with all the bans we have in place it should phase out," said Meyer.
But to help ensure consumer confidence and to find out where the BSE situation stands in the United States, USDA has begun a BSE testing program, said Meyer. The program will be overseen by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) division within USDA. Meyer said the testing program will be across the country, lasting between 12 and 18 months.
The program began this past June, Meyer said, and will be a one-time effort by USDA. The program is meant to see if BSE is present in the cattle industry and if so at what levels.
Under the program, USDA will assist cattle farmers with any cost of participating in the program. USDA officials will only be testing cattle in the high-risk population, meaning non-ambulatory cattle, cattle exhibiting signs of a central nervous disorder, cattle exhibiting signs associated with BSE and dead cattle.
"If we are going to find them (cattle with BSE), we are going to find them in that high-risk category," said Meyer.
Meyer said the program will be targeting cattle older than 30 months. Meyer said the target age is older because cattle can carry the BSE disease up to 90 months.
USDA will be working with officials at slaughter houses, farms and livestock auctions to find cattle in the high-risk population, as well as cattle farmers.
Meyer said there is also a tracking system for cattle that makes it easy to trace back where the animals came from.
Testing of animals will be done using ELISA, which is a rapid screening test that gives officials quick results. USDA is working with various laboratories across the country, including in Washington state, to provide test results. Meyers said any inconclusive results will be double-checked at the National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Iowa.