U.S. cattle producers continue to watch the nation's latest case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) — confirmed recently in Alabama — for the effect it might have on export markets. But at least one economist doesn't foresee long-term ramifications.

“Given the fact that the animal appears to be over 10 years old, and therefore was around before the feed ban, I don't see much of an effect over the middle to longer run time period,” says Jim Hilker, agricultural economist with Michigan State University.

“However, in the short run, it is slowing up things a bit, mostly the ongoing negotiations with Japan and Korea. If at the end of the U.S. investigation, there are no new surprises, export improvements should move on slowly as we were expecting,” says Hilker.

Sharp increases in beef production explain much of the recent price decreases, but weaker demand also is playing a role, he says.

The second U.S. BSE case comes on the heels of beef trade talks with Japan and South Korea. But because of its confidence in the safety of U.S. beef, the USDA doesn't see the Alabama case affecting trade talks. “We hope this doesn't hurt trade,” says John Clifford, USDA chief veterinarian. “We have a number of safeguards in place. We are being transparent with our information in coming forward with this announcement. We see no impact with our ongoing discussions with Japan.”

Speaking at the recent Spring Legislative Conference of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) in Washington, D.C., U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns acknowledged that the Alabama BSE case has caused concern with some key trading partners such as South Korea, which had planned to reopen its market to U.S. beef in coming weeks.

“I would be less than candid if I did not share that this is somewhat of a setback with regard to South Korea,” he said. “But not a day goes by that we are not in consultation with the South Korean government.”

On the topic of animal identification, Johanns was questioned about USDA's plan for having a mandatory system in place by 2009. He said he shares NCBA's desire to achieve participation voluntarily rather than by government mandate.

“Our hope, which I think is the same as yours, is to bring the system along and hit the benchmarks on a voluntary basis,” Johanns said. “But I just think it's going to be absolutely necessary. Because of the retail market and foreign competition, nobody can afford to be left behind.”

The Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries (ADAI) and the USDA are continuing their ongoing joint investigation of a cow that died from BSE or “mad cow disease” in Alabama in March.

Since the investigation began, the ADAI and the USDA have followed multiple leads in the traceback process. At this time, 13 locations and 32 movements of cattle have been examined with 27 of those being substantially completed. Additional investigations of locations and herds will continue, according to officials.

In addition, state and federal officials have confirmed that a black bull calf was born in 2005 to the infected animal. The calf was taken by the owner to a local stockyard in July 2005 where it died.

The calf was disposed of in a local landfill and did not enter the human or animal food chain.

Without a premises or animal ID program in place, the traceback process to find the herd of origin of the index cow is time-consuming and difficult, according to ADAI Commissioner Ron Sparks. It includes conducting interviews, reviewing records and documents, and testing cattle DNA.

State and federal officials have discovered several herds of interest, and they are planning to use DNA testing to determine DNA linkage between the index cow and the herds. Through the DNA testing of these herds, investigators will attempt to find a genetic path that could lead to the herd of origin, says Sparks.

As part of the investigative process, he adds, a large number of cattle may be tested, and the number of herds included will continue to grow as the traceback progresses. Leads will be followed by state and federal officials until they are exhausted, says Sparks.

State Veterinarian Tony Frazier says the DNA testing is being conducted to leave no room for error. “Even though there is no science that shows it transfers from mother to offspring, we want to be doubly sure,” says Frazier.

Leads in the BSE case have not taken investigators outside Alabama, says Frazier. “Despite the scores of interviews, it seems that documentation on the infected cow stops at its last place of sale more than a year ago. Since we have no identification system, this is going to take a little time,” he says.

Not contagious

BSE is not a contagious disease that spreads animal to animal or animal to human.

BSE spreads in cattle through the consumption of feed containing specified risk material (brain and spinal cord) derived from BSE infected cattle. The United States has banned the use of such protein supplements in cattle feed since 1997. Sparks says that beef consumption in this country is safe and there are measures in place to see that it continues to be safe. For example, downer animals are not allowed to enter commerce for human consumption and there is a ban on feeding ruminant derived protein to cattle.

e-mail: phollis@farmpress.com