Yesterday’s announcement by USDA’s Chief Veterinarian John Clifford, DVM, of atypical bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) confirmed in a central California dairy cow sent shock waves throughout the beef and dairy industries as well as the consumer press.

Now it’s time to take a breath, step back, and look at the facts. First and foremost, we do not have a food safety crisis. But you, as veterinarians, will be asked, no doubt, by your clients, neighbors, community and even the media about the significance of this event.

It’s important to keep in mind that this was the only fourth case ever of BSE found in the United States, and the first since 2003 when stringent controls were put in place to prevent BSE from entering the food chain.

Veterinary epidemiologist Guy Loneragan, BVSc, PhD, Texas Tech University, spoke on a National Cattlemen’s Beef Association news conference late yesterday afternoon (see NCBA’s statement here). I contacted Dr. Loneragan and asked a few questions of my own, specifically what type of information veterinarians need to discuss this even with their clients and others.

“A tremendous amount of scientific knowledge has been generated about BSE,” Lonergan said. “Most importantly, we know how to effectively control its spread to protect both animal and public health.”

Some of the key facts Loneragan says veterinarians need to know and be able to explain about BSE are:

  • While less is known about atypical BSE, the epidemiological evidence informs our understanding that it is not contagious and that the effective controls put in place to control BSE are effective against atypical BSE.
  • It is called atypical BSE because it varies slightly from classical BSE in that it has its own fingerprint, kind of like a DNA fingerprint but in this case a protein fingerprint.
  • Controls put in place to protect animal and public health have been successful and beef and milk in the United States is safe.
  • Our targeted surveillance program is designed to detect rare events and this case highlights that our targeted surveillance program is working
  • More and more countries, including the United States, are aligning their policies to the international standards set by the world organization for animal health (OIE). Those standards reflect the current science and are designed to allow safe trade in ruminants and beef products.
  • The United States has a series of interlocking firewalls to protect animal health and public health that includes coordinated controls at the USDA/APHIS, USDA/FSIS, and FDA levels. These firewalls have been updated as the scientific knowledge advances.

Listen to an audio interview from NCBA with Guy Loneragan here.

For more information, read statements from these following organizations: