Nothing’s more important than keeping a level head following last week’s discovery that a Canadian cow was infected with “mad cow” disease. What may look like a public-health problem on the surface is actually a success story of smart regulation and vigilant oversight.
You can count on one hand the number of times Canadian officials have identified mad cow disease in their country. On the basis of this single case, however, they’ve leaped into action with quarantines and a massive investigation–and the United States, along with several other countries, temporarily banned the import of Canadian beef.
These measures represent a professional and workmanlike approach by regulatory agencies across borders to manage an issue related to public health. The system is proving so robust that our FDA has traced meat from the infected animal to a specific pet food and the lot numbers of the product. There is no evidence that this material represents a threat to dogs, but it is impressive to see the diligence of the agencies.
The results of Canada’s probe are still coming in, but the initial signs are encouraging. The sick cow had spent the last five months in an Alberta herd of 150 head, and investigators said that none of the other animals were infected according to the first testing. Additional herds are still being examined. Canada had already implemented traceback methods in their livestock supply chains and we can be sure that elements of this system are providing objective evidence that the Canadian system is working.
So we’re not looking at a severe outbreak of this affliction, which is also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE. Even if officials report a few more isolated cases, we’ll have to keep things in perspective.
Disease makes great press, and the media loves to report on SARS, the West Nile virus, and ebola. Fear generates the viewers and readers who are the news industry’s lifeblood. Sometimes the close attention is warranted, as may be the case with SARS. On other occasions, it gets out of hand–and the public gets the impression that something is much worse than it really is. In other words, panic sets in and spreads, as if it were a highly contagious disease itself.
So far, the coverage of mad cow has been pretty good. This is an important story that has received responsible treatment. As we move forward, however, it will be vital for everybody to keep in mind a few basic facts.
First of all, mad cow disease is not easily communicable. It doesn’t zip through a herd the way a virus floats around a preschool. It’s transmitted through feed, which means we can substantially prevent it with feedstuff regulation. Industry stakeholders working with regulators give us the ability to trace and contain it after detection. I’m not a big fan of regulatory bureaucracies, but we have them in place for responding to incidents just like this one. FDA manages a long standing ban on feeding material even remotely suspected of causing the disease. USDA regulates all imports giving us an additional firebreak of protection.
Yet even the most stringent regulation can’t stop mad cow disease from occurring naturally, which in fact it may do. Sometimes healthy people suffer heart attacks for reasons that doctors don’t understand. Tetanus is a horrific disease in nature, but we manage our exposure and protect ourselves accordingly. Likewise, BSE may appear in cow populations as a kind of background noise. The careful diligence evidenced in Canada proves that we can manage even the remote possibility and none of it enters the human food system.
That’s what happened in Canada. Its diseased cow was identified and destroyed. There’s no chance you’ll eat a part of it in your next Big Mac.
If BSE really is a natural phenomenon, it would be disappointing if we didn’t find any cases, because that would suggest that we were missing some–and that we weren’t looking hard enough for its rare occurrences.
In this sense, it should please us to know we did identify the cow with the disease. The risk, however, is that we’ll find another one, and then another one–and a handful of isolated cases could startle the public. The media might be tempted to report an epidemic when, in fact, these cases would merely represent a few freak occurrences in a cattle population of millions. Remember; when we look carefully for something we generally find more of it.
The beef industry is the single largest segment of our agriculture economy, and the consequences of a panic would be terrible. The effects wouldn’t be limited to ranchers. It would affect truckers, packers, farmers who grow feed and tens of thousands of American workers. Even the rumor of a BSE outbreak could set in motion a disastrous chain of events.
Nobody wants to prevent this from happening more than the people whose livelihood depends upon this market. All sectors of the beef industry are strong advocates of effective regulation and oversight.
Europe is still paying the price of a mad cow scare in the 1990s. BSE turned up in British cattle, perhaps because of particular production methods that since have been modified. Whatever the cause, the outbreak decimated Europe’s confidence in its regulatory agencies. Today, this is a major reason why the EU has been so resistant to perfectly safe biotech food.
In North America, the men and women charged with keeping our food safe have earned the public’s trust. Last week’s news is more evidence that they’re doing exactly what we ask of them. It’s our duty, in return, to acknowledge they’ve done their jobs well.