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FTR #295 Update on Foot-and-Mouth Disease and Mad-Cow Disease

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NB: This RealAudio stream contains FTRs 294 and 295 in sequence. Each is a 30-minute broadcast.

1. Presenting more information about the outbreaks of foot-and-mouth and mad-cow diseases, this program begins with discussion of contingency plans to handle foot-and-mouth should the disease break out in the United States. These plans entail the coordinated efforts of a number of governmental agencies and could be viewed as a step that, in certain respects, would move the country closer to a form of limited martial law. “The first comprehensive exercise about how the nation would contain foot-and-mouth disease showed that an outbreak could be stopped only with the combined strength of all federal disaster agencies, including the military, Agriculture Department officials have said. After decades of relying largely on state and local governments to help contain animal diseases, the Department of Agriculture asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to develop a plan to combat this one as forcefully as if it threatened human lives, said Clifford Oliver, the director of Agriculture Department’s office of crisis planning. ‘We were coming to the realization that state and local government would be overwhelmed and the U.S.D.A. would be overwhelmed if foot-and-mouth broke out,’ Mr. Oliver said. With Britain, one of the most advanced agricultural nations, enduring an epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease and British troops belatedly called in for mass burials of hundreds of thousands of slaughtered animals, American farmers and ranchers began lobbying their state agriculture chiefs for better planning. Those officials recently urged Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman to find out what the rest of the government could do to contain an outbreak. The federal Catastrophic Disaster Response Group, which normally worries about bio-terrorism or industrial disasters, organized the table-top exercise for the Agriculture Department on Wednesday, bringing together representatives of 26 agencies, including the Departments of Defense, Commerce, Interior, Energy and Health and Human Services, Mr. Oliver said. The exercise confirmed fears that without the entire government working to contain it, the disease would spread like wildfire if it ever reached this country.” (“Cattle Disease Poses Threat to Run Wild, U.S. Finds” by Elizabeth Becker; New York Times; 4/17/2001; p. A15.)

2. Interestingly (and perhaps significantly), an international commission studying international regulation of biological warfare development noted that strengthening an existing treaty would facilitate world-wide monitoring of foot-and-mouth disease. “Slow-moving talks on an effective anti-cheating regime for an international treaty banning germ weapons were given a fresh push yesterday when the chairman presented his own compromise draft as a basis for negotiation. Speaking on the first day of a three-week negotiating session, Tibor Toth of Hungary said he was optimistic that a verification protocol for the 1972 biological weapons treaty could be concluded by November when states that are party to the treaty hold their fifth review conference in Geneva. However the six-year old negotiations remain stalled on key aspects of the policing regime, notably concerning the scope and intrusiveness of on-site inspections and issues relating to export controls and technology transfer . . . . He [Toth] appealed to the 50 or so countries taking part in the talks to make concessions to conclude a protocol this year. He said a verification regime would help to head off attempts by rogue states to produce or acquire biological weapons capable of mass destruction of human, animal and plant life. Moreover, by strengthening international co-operation on disease surveillance it would also contribute to reducing deaths and illness from infectious diseases, whether natural or man-made. Foot-and-mouth disease is among those potentially covered by the protocol, Mr. Toth noted.” (“Draft Gives Fresh Push to Germ Warfare Pact” by Frances Williams; Financial Times; 4/24/2001; p. 4.)

3. A recent op-ed column raised the very question at the heart of the discussion set forth in FTR-287, namely, IS the outbreak of foot-and-mouth the result of biological warfare? The writer also raised another aspect of the line of inquiry presented in that program—the possibility that Iraq may have been involved in the deliberate spread of the disease. “Could the United States be at war and not know it? The current outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the United Kingdom makes one wonder. Not about Britain’s plight specifically; there’s nothing to suggest that the epidemic there is an act of war. But consider how quickly and easily it has spread. Then consider a regime such as Iraq’s, which has demonstrated a commitment to developing biological weapons. Might such a nation find it advantageous to strike anonymously and biologically by spreading an economically devastating disease or a slow-acting toxin? This is not an abstract question. The Iraqi regime insists that the economic sanctions imposed on it are nothing less than a genocidal attack by the United States and the United Kingdom. The regime has said it is still fighting the Persian Gulf War, and that it will respond to the plight of the Palestinians . . . . Among the agents known to have been loaded into warheads are aflatoxin, a fungal toxin that can cause liver cancer, and wheat-cover smut, which destroys grain crops . . . . And if a slow-developing disease can’t be linked to the event that triggered it, how can a country prevent such attacks? How can it respond? Science might be able to address part of this problem. Subtle differences in varieties of biological agents can be analyzed and traced to certain regions. Other effects might have signatures that can be observed in victims.” (“If an Enemy Attacks, Will We Know It?” by Charles Duelfer; San Jose Mercury News; 4/24/2001; p. 7B.)

4. As noted in FTR-287, a recent U.N. study about the renascent Iraqi development programs for weapons of mass destruction warned of that country’s development of foot-and-mouth virus. (“Missiles, Viruses Still Trouble Experts” by the international staff. Financial Times; 3/2/2001; p. 5.)

5. “Iraq’s research into viruses—including polio, influenza, foot-and-mouth disease, the camelpox virus, infectious hemorrhagic conjuunctivitis virus and rotavirus—was also worrying.” (Idem.)

6. Interestingly, and perhaps significantly, the U.S. and Britain launched air strikes against Iraq shortly after George W. Bush became president. The possibility that the foot-and-mouth outbreak might stem from Iraqi biological warfare retaliation for Britain’s role in the strikes is not one that should be too readily cast aside. It is also interesting to note that, as the Charles Duelfer column excerpted noted above points out, genetic signatures of a given contagion-causing organism might yield clues as to the possible origin of the disease. “The strain of foot-and-mouth virus plaguing Britain’s farms was first detected in India more than a decade ago. Scientists have been tracking it across the world since then, but are no closer to determining how it got to England. . . . Experts have identified the virus causing the current outbreak in Europe as belonging to the Pan-Asia type zero strain. The subtype ravaging Britain is normally found in the Middle East and South Asia.” (“Foot-and-Mouth Trots Around Globe” by Emma Ross; San Jose Mercury News; 3/30/2001; p. 5A.) [Mr. Emory notes, in retrospect, that this outbreak is also interesting in light of Pakistani support for the Taliban and the long-standing conflict between that country and India.]

7. In the context of Saddam’s hostility to Britain, several additional facts should be taken into account. One is that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was raised by, and heavily influenced by his pro-Nazi, anti-British uncle. “At ten, he found a mentor in his maternal uncle, Khairallah al-Tulfah, a recently cashiered army officer whose hatred of British colonial rule was matched only by his admiration for Adolf Hitler and his Nazi ideals. . . . He learned to read by the light of an oil lamp and fed his spirit on his uncle’s tales of exploits with pro-German officers in the Iraqi army. Khairallah al-Tulfah had a dream that Arabs would one day be free of foreign occupation and foreign rule. The Germans, Khairallah said, were the only ones who respected the Arabs as equals. The British were just after their oil.” (The Death Lobby: How the West Armed Iraq; by Kenneth Timmerman; copyright 1991 [HC]; by Houghton Mifflin Company; ISBN 0-395-59305-0; p.1.)

8. Khairallah was also deeply involved with the development of the Iraqi biological weapons program, which was known as the “General Directorate of Veterinary Services!” “Saddam Hussein was attracted early on to bacteriological weapons. They were cheap, relatively simple to manufacture, and potentially deadly. . . . On November 2, 1974, [Izzat] al-Douri signed a contract with the Paris-based Institut Merieux, to set up Iraq’s first bacteriological laboratory. The Iraqis explained that they needed to be able to manufacture large quantitites of vaccines in order to develop agricultural and animal production. The official Iraqi purchasing agency was called the General Directorate of Veterinary Services.” (Ibid.; p. 20.)

9. “Al Douri’s success won him a promotion and made him a de facto member of the team, the three-man Strategic Planning Committee, along with Saddam, Khairallah, and Adnan Hamdani.” (Ibid.; pp. 20-21.)

10. One interesting detail concerning the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Britain concerns reports of human infections with the disease. “Government hopes of persuading tourists back to the countryside suffered a serious setback yesterday when a slaughterman in north-west England was suspected of catching foot-and-mouth disease. The Department of Health said a man involved in the mass cull in Cumbria was suffering blistering which indicated he had become infected with the disease, although final results from medical tests would not be available for a day or two. The news came as the government faced growing concern about the health risks of burning carcasses on mass funeral pyres and seemed certain to undermine last week’s claim that the epidemic was now ‘fully under control.’ The government has always maintained the risk to humans from foot-and-mouth is minimal and, with many tourist businesses on the brink of collapse, has urged people to return to rural areas . . . . Peter Ainsworth, culture spokesman for the opposition conservative party, said that if the case was confirmed it would be a ‘massive setback to the recovery of British tourism’ as some Americans and other visitors who mistakenly believe foot-and-mouth is a serious risk to human health would decide to stay away. ‘It’s a further massive dent to the image of British tourism at a time when we can ill afford it.’ Mr. Ainsworth said . . . . ‘This is incredibly rare.’ Said a Department of Health spokesman.’ ‘The symptoms are relatively mild and it should respond well to treatment and clear up quickly.’” (“Suspectd Human Foot-and-Mouth Case Hits Government Campaign” by Michael Mann and Cathy Newman; Financial Times; 4/24/2001; p. 9.)

11. More suspected human infections were reported by the Financial Times the following day. “Two more suspected cases of foot-and-mouth disease being transmitted to humans were being investigated by the Department of Health yesterday as the government’s handling of the crisis was strongly criticized by leading independent scientists. Results from the first suspected case, involving a slaughterman in Cumbria, North-West England, are due shortly. Officials said the circumstances in which he may have caught the infection were highly unusual and proved there was no cause for concern. The man was moving a decomposing carcass when it exploded.” (“Livestock Disease Suspected in More Humans” by John Mason Cathy Newman and Michael Mann; Financial Times; 4/25/2001; p. 9.) One of the possibilities to be investigated is that the strain of foot-and-mouth may have been genetically altered to affect humans.

12. The remainder of the broadcast deals with mad-cow disease and its human variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Mad cow disease is believed to result from nervous system tissue from scrapie-infected sheep being fed to cows. Scrapie, in turn has also been studied by elements associated with the creation of biological weapons, including the National Cancer Institute.

13. “Alternatively, ‘slow’ viruses were of the greatest interest to WHO, CDC, NIH, and NCI scientists between 1968 and 1974. The reasons for this were not as obvious. The WHO Chronicle reported: ‘Recent interest in the slow viruses, in particular those causing chronic degenerative disease of the nervous system—the CHINA (chronic infectious neuropathic agents) viruses—has come from painstaking work with visna and scrapie, degenerative diseases of the central nervous system of sheep. . . . CHINA viruses are distinguished by the languishing character of the infection process they initiate. The incubation period in the host may be months or years, and the disease itself may progress laggardly towards an irreversible deterioration of the victim. . . . The resistance of the scrapie agent to heat, ether, formalin, and other enzymatic and chemical agents, as well as its very small particle size, poses the question whether it is a conventional virus, an incomplete virus, or some other agent. . . . the findings of different [research] groups are at variance and in several instances are totally inexplicable within our present concept of infectious agents.’” (Emerging Viruses: AIDS and Ebola—Nature, Accident or Intentional?; by Dr. Leonard G. Horowitz; Copyright 1996 [HC] by Tetrahedron Inc.; ISBN 0-923550-12-7; pp. 16-17.)

14. In determining whether mad cow could be the result of biological warfare, it is interesting to note that genetic differences may account for the epidemiological characteristics of the disease in Britain. This suggests at least the possibility of genetic engineering in connection with the disease. “Scientists have confirmed that cases of the human form of mad cow disease in the North are running at double the rate in the South. . . . The researchers found it was twice as common in the North of England and Scotland, but were at a loss to explain the difference after finding no clear link with regional differences in eating habits. . . .’We also need to keep an open mind about other factors unrelated to diet. . . . these could include the genetic background of victims. All those who developed the disease had a specific genetic make-up and it could be that people in the North are more genetically susceptible than in other places.’” (“Puzzled Scientists Try to Explain Regional Variation in Figures” by Mike Waites; Yorkshire Post; 3/30/2001.)

15. The broadcast concludes with examination of a hypothetical explanation for the outbreak of mad-cow disease. Investigators in New Zealand blame the outbreak in Britain on an African antelope imported into a game park in the mid-1970’s. “An African antelope imported for a British game park may have triggered the ‘mad-cow’ disease that has devastated beef herds in Britain, New Zealand researchers believe. Scientists from Massey University led by epidemiologist Roger Morris, are preparing to publish scientific work underpinning the theory, Professor Morris said. The team investigated 35 theories of the cause of the epidemic. If true, the antelope theory would supplant a widely held belief that bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, originated in sheep infected with a similar disease, scrapie, which were ground up for animal feed. Scientific papers to be published later this year by Mr. Morris and the team will canvass the likelihood that a form of BSE occurs in wild antelope, and spread into British cattle when an infected animal from a wildlife park was rendered into meat and bone meal.” (“’Mad-Cow’ Disease Linked to Antelope Researchers Say” [AP]; Wall Street Journal; 4/23/2001; p. B4A.) Mr. Emory notes that AIDS has come to be blamed (falsely) on infestation from Africa. In light of the research into scrapie conducted by institutions connected to biological warfare development, one wonders if a similar scapegoating of the “dark continent” for the genesis of mad-cow might be under way.

Discussion

9 comments for “FTR #295 Update on Foot-and-Mouth Disease and Mad-Cow Disease”

  1. The discovery of the first case in mad cow in the US since 2006 is prompting the expected round of assurances to beef/dairy consumers that this was an anomalous event and there’s really nothing to be worried about. After all, this is the first case found in 6 years. What isn’t mentioned quite as often is that the cow was exhibiting no symptoms and was found through a random screening. But then, the FDA and industry argues, the fact that it was found through a random screen is a sign of the effectiveness of safety procedures. After all, there hasn’t been a case since 2006. What’s mentioned even less is that only 40,000 cows are randomly screened for mad cow each year. This is in a country with ~35 million cattle slaughtered annually. So what we’ve learned is that ~0.1% of the cattle are screen for a deadly, but presumably very rare, disease that both the cattle and humans can harbor asymptomatically for decades. And when symptoms do arise, they might be mistaken for Alzheimers. The article below also indicates that experst don’t know what the actual prevalence of spontaneous madcow disease is in cattle, shich would be a useful bit of info for determining an adequate screening regime.So let’s hope a 0.1% screening rate is enough and that’s why this was the first case seen since 2006 because the other possibilities are rather, ummm, unappetizing:

    Discovery of mad cow at US rendering plant was due to luck and random USDA testing
    Discovery of mad cow in US was stroke of luck

    By TRACIE CONE and GOSIA WOZNIACKA | Associated Press | Apr 25, 2012 4:20 AM CDT
    A nondescript building in the heart of California’s dairy country has become the focus of intense scrutiny after mad cow disease was discovered in a dead dairy cow.

    The finding, announced Tuesday, is the first new case of the disease in the U.S. since 2006 _ and the fact that the discovery was made at all was a stroke of luck. Tests are performed on only a small portion of dead animals brought to the transfer facility near Hanford in central California.

    The cow had died at one of the region’s hundreds of dairies, but hadn’t exhibited outward symptoms of the disease: unsteadiness, incoordination, a drastic change in behavior or low milk production, officials said. But when the animal arrived at the facility with a truckload of other dead cows on April 18, its 30-month-plus age and fresh corpse made her eligible for USDA testing.

    “We randomly pick a number of samples throughout the year, and this just happened to be one that we randomly sampled,” Baker Commodities executive vice president Dennis Luckey said. “It showed no signs” of disease.

    The samples went to the food safety lab at the University of California, Davis on April 18. By April 19, markers indicated the cow could have bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), a disease that is fatal to cows and can cause a deadly human brain disease in people who eat tainted meat. It was sent to the USDA lab in Iowa for further testing.

    In humans, experts say the disease can occur in one in 1 million people, causing sponge-like holes in the brain. But they say not enough is known about how and how often the disease strikes cattle.

    Among the unknowns about the current case is whether the animal died of the disease and whether other cattle in its herd are similarly infected. The name of the dairy where the cow died hasn’t been released, and officials haven’t said where the cow was born.

    “It’s appropriate to be cautious, it’s appropriate to pay attention and it’s appropriate to ask questions, but now let’s watch and see what the researchers find out in the next couple of days,” said James Culler, director of the UC Davis dairy food safety laboratory and an authority on BSE.

    Culler said that in this case the food safety testing program worked and that this form of BSE so rarely occurs that consumers shouldn’t be alarmed.

    “Are you worried about all of the meteors that passed the earth last night while you were sleeping? Of course not,” Culler said. “Would you pay 90 percent of your salaries to set up all of the observatories on earth to watch for them? Of course not. It’s the same thing.”

    The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association said in a statement that “U.S. regulatory controls are effective, and that U.S fresh beef and beef products from cattle of all ages are safe and can be safely traded due to our interlocking safeguards.”

    The infected cow was identified through an Agriculture Department surveillance program that tests about 40,000 cows a year for the fatal brain disease.

    There have been three confirmed cases of BSE in cows in the United States _ in a Canadian-born cow in 2003 in Washington state, in 2005 in Texas and in 2006 in Alabama.

    Both the 2005 and 2006 cases were also atypical varieties of the disease, USDA officials said.

    The mad cow cases that plagued England in the early 1990s were caused when livestock routinely were fed protein supplements that included ground cow spinal columns and brain tissue, which can harbor the disease.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | April 26, 2012, 2:52 pm
  2. The USDA has an update on the recent case of mad cow in California. Now it sounds like the cow was lame and unable to walk, contradicting earlier reports that the cow was asymptomatic. It also sounds like to cow was a 10 year old dairy cow. Or maybe 5 years old. There’s apparently still some confusion:

    USDA: U.S. mad cow was lame, lying down at dairy
    April 27, 2012

    SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – The mad cow that was recently discovered through routine testing in California had been euthanized after it became lame and started lying down at a dairy, federal officials revealed Thursday.

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture also said the cow was 10 years and seven months old in its update on the fourth case of mad cow disease ever discovered in the U.S.

    A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes of California had said Wednesday that the sick cow was 5 years old. It came from a dairy farm in Tulare County, America’s No. 1 dairy-producing county.

    The USDA didn’t elaborate on the cow’s symptoms other than to say it was “humanely euthanized after it developed lameness and became recumbent.”

    Routine testing at a transfer facility showed the dead Holstein, which was destined for a rendering plant, had mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy. The results were announced Tuesday.

    Animals at high risk for the disease include those with symptoms of neurological disease, “downer” animals at slaughterhouses, animals that die at dairies or cattle ranches for unknown reasons, and cows more than 2 1/2 years old, because BSE occurs in older cows.

    U.S. health officials say there is no risk to the food supply. The California cow was never destined for the meat market, and it developed “atypical” BSE from a random mutation, something that scientists know happens occasionally. Somehow, a protein the body normally harbors folds into an abnormal shape called a prion, setting off a chain reaction of misfolds that eventually kills brain cells.

    So cows older then 2 1/2 years are considered at risk for developing mad cow, and the mad cow in question is either 5 or 10 years old. That’s a little unsettling since it raises the possibility that the cow had been infected for number of years before the symptoms started showing up. Well, at least we’re being assured that there was no human health risk since it was a dairy cow that’s not meant to enter the meat supply. It sure is a good thing that mad cow can’t be spread in milk:

    Prion Disease Spreads in Sheep Via Mother’s Milk

    ScienceDaily (Jan. 19, 2011) — Transmission of prion brain diseases such as bovine spongiform enecephalopathy (BSE) — also known as mad cow disease — and human variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) is generally attributed to the consumption of the brain or organ meat of infected animals but new research demonstrates lambs exposed to milk from prion-infected sheep with inflamed mammary glands can develop prion disease as well. The research, which is published in the January 2011 issue of the Journal of Virology, has major implications for human and livestock health.

    Recent research had suggested that human-to-human transmission of prions has occurred via blood transfusions, “underscoring the importance of understanding possible transmission routes,” the researchers write. The misfolded prions that cause vCJD in humans, and BSE in cattle — which can be transmitted to humans — commonly accumulate in lymphoid tissues before invading the central nervous system, where they wreak their deadly effects. Inflammation can cause lymphoid follicles to form in other organs, such as liver and kidney, which leads prions to invade organs that normally do not harbor infection. In recent research, this team, led by Ciriaco Ligios of the Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale in Sardinia, Italy and Adriano Agguzi at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, reported sheep with misfolded prions in inflamed mammary glands, also known as mastitis, raising concerns that prions could be secreted into milk.

    In the new research, the team infected sheep with a common retrovirus that causes mastitis, and misfolded prions. They bred the sheep, in order to stimulate the females to produce milk, which they then collected and fed to lambs that had never been exposed to prions. The lambs developed prion disease after only two years, a speed which surprised the researchers, and “suggested that there was a high level of prion infectivity in milk,” says Sigurdson.

    The research raises several disturbing possibilities.

    A common virus in a sheep with prion disease can lead to prion contamination of the milk pool and may lead to prion infection of other animals.
    The same virus in a prion-infected sheep could efficiently propagate prion infection within a flock, through transmission of prions to the lambs, via milk. This might be particularly likely on factory farms, where mastitis may be common, and could occur in goats as well as sheep.
    Humans with variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) might accumulate prions in inflamed organs, and could also secrete prions.

    However, “This work cannot be directly extrapolated to cattle,” says Sigurdson. She says that BSE prions do not accumulate to detectible levels in lymphoid organs, and thus would not be expected to accumulate with inflammation. “Nonetheless,” she says, “it would be worth testing milk from cattle with mastitis for prions as there may be other cellular sources for prions entry into milk.”

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | April 26, 2012, 10:46 pm
  3. @Pterrafractyl: Unfortunate stuff.

    Sad thing is, we could have cured these diseases already if the medical establishment wasn’t so full of incompetent bums and money-grubbing crooks.

    Posted by Steve L. | April 27, 2012, 3:30 am
  4. @Steven L.: “Scary” barely begins to describe the potentional for the kinds of prion-related calamities the US is flirting with in order to save a few cents on the cost of beef. It could be like Zombieland in slow motion. The possibility of infectious prions spreading in via dairy products is particularly disturbing since a cow could be spreading that stuff asymptomatically for years. I can’t fault the entire medical establishment for our mad cow policies, especially when it comes to regulatory policies. There are surely some bad actors in the research community but the doctors and scientists aren’t really the ones with the final say on these kinds matters. The nature of the risk is one of low-probabilities and low-precedent. Low probality, low precedent problems are, by their very nature, really tough calls especially when there are potentially disasterous consequences. And that’s before all the amoral outside interests get involved. A sober scientific appraisal of the risks at hand just won’t happen when it’s industry-approved political appointees making the final call using industry-derived voluntarily submitted data. And this is not to say that there’s compelling evidence of some sort of existing mad cow epedemic. The problem is that what little data the public has about the mad cow screening policy suggests that the screening regime itself can’t gather the data required to catch an emerging prion problem in the food supply if that low probability event should takes place. It’s like the previous testing into the risk of mad cow concluded “there isn’t much of it, so we don’t have to worry about it”. That’s like sampling people for the flu in the middle of July and assuming it will be like that all year around. Infectious agents don’t behave like this. If a prion disease spontaneously pops up in one in a million humans and at a similar rate in cattle (that’s what the data suggests), how in the hell can we know if testing 40,000 cattle of in the 30-40 million raised each year is really capable of catching an outbreak in time. Especially when you’re targeting only lame/older cattle and systematically can’t catch an outbreak that isn’t in old or lame cattle. For an infectious disease that can be asymptomatic for years that’s a serious problem. Especially when we don’t really understand all the different ways it spreads.

    And increasingly technology is going to shift these kinds of low probability risks in highly unpredictable ways. Events like BP’s Gulf spill and the Fukushima meltdown were both low probability events and the lack of preparation in both cases was justified, in part, by the extremely low probabilities assigned to the sequence of events that led to the catastrophes. They both happened and changed the world irreversibly. Those probabilities of a depp ocean well blow out or multiple full nuclear meltdowns were probably rigged optimistically set by their industries as improbably low. I’d be pretty shocked if the same wasn’t true for the beef and dairy industry. As more and more technology gets implemented in ways that “might” lead to catastrophe, it looks like more and more irreversible catastrophes are going to take place because humanity just cannot seem to resist engaging in stupid optimism whenever it’s profitable. Plus, these are really hard scenarios to preduct accurately. It’s another systemic meta-problem we have yet to address. In an age of cloned, genetically modified cows what if the cow clones of the future have an undetected higher suspectibility to spontaneous prion disease? Do we have enough info to know if that’s happening? Can the current testing regime pick up the kind of dubtle shifts in genetic predisposition of an upcoming generation of cattle when the testing rate is at 0.1% and targetted at old and lame cattle. Who knows because it looks like the one screening in 2004 of 759,000 cattle to establish a baseline “prevalence” of the disease sponaneously appearing is the one and only estimate the USDA will allow to happen. Because after that, they drastically cut back on testing with only more cuts to follow. The US basically took one big sample in 2004 and that’s it. So if that 2004 sampling led to a significant understimation of the natural prevalence of mad cow OR the underlying conditions change in the future (e.g. different strains of mad cow emerging, business practices gone awry, bioterror, etc) a MAJOR assumption in what constitutes a “safe” testing regime might be skewed in ways that set the screening system up to fail. Bad stats really can kill.

    Like with Fukushima and the BP spill we’re squarely in low probability/high impact territory with mad cow and that doesn’t bode well given humanity’s track record. For instance, check out this article from 2007. It’s about some researchers that developed a mad cow-free cow by removing a gene involved with the production of prions. Apparently cows don’t need them to live (prions are naturally produced by the body but apparently not necessary to live). It’s an interesting article that shows the potential for developing a cure for prion diseases, but it also raises a couple of questions. First, there’s an estimate in the article that if all 42 million cattle in the US were tested for mad cow, maybe 4-7 cases would be found at most. That was what the experts were saying. So 0.00001% of the cows in the US were assumed to be infected as of 2007. I’d like to see the margin of error on that stat. Considering that three cases of mad cow had been detected in the US (starting in 2003) from what sounds like maybe a couple million tested at most (at a rate of 0.1% after the initial 1% screen), it sort of begs the question of just how reliable that estimate is that there were only 4-7 infected cows in the entire US at most? Is that supposed to be a conservative estimate? What would a reasonably optimistic estimate have been, one infected cow in the whole US at the most? Was there a super thorough testing regime that took place to get a decent baseline estimate and how useful is that estimate as a future predictor? (the articles below indicate “no”) Are we really risking loading up the population with low but still unacceptable levels of prions year after year based on these kinds of assumptions? Yes:

    Scientists Announce Mad Cow Breakthrough

    By Rick Weiss
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, January 1, 2007

    Scientists said yesterday that they have used genetic engineering techniques to produce the first cattle that may be biologically incapable of getting mad cow disease.

    The animals, which lack a gene that is crucial to the disease’s progression, were not designed for use as food. They were created so that human pharmaceuticals can be made in their blood without the danger that those products might get contaminated with the infectious agent that causes mad cow.

    That agent, a protein known as a prion (pronounced PREE-on), can cause a fatal human ailment, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, if it gets into the body.

    More generally, scientists said, the animals will facilitate studies of prions, which are among the strangest of all known infectious agents because they do not contain any genetic material. Prions also cause scrapie in sheep and fatal wasting diseases in elk and minks.

    In the future, experts said, similar techniques might be used to engineer animals with more nutritious meats — though the Food and Drug Administration has said it will require engineered food animals to pass tests far more stringent than those it recently deemed adequate for clones.

    “This is a seminal research paper,” said Barbara Glenn, director for animal biotechnology at the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a Washington industry group that counts among its members Hematech, the Sioux Falls, S.D.-based company that created the gene-altered cattle.

    “This shows the application of transgenics to improving livestock production and ultimately food production.”

    Prions, which are normal protein components of the brain, immune system and other tissues, cause disease only when they “go bad.” For these long strands of protein, that means folding themselves into three-dimensional shapes that are slightly different from their conventional conformation.

    Prions remain poorly understood, but experiments suggest that it takes just one bad one to ruin a brain. That’s because a badly folded prion in the brain can strong-arm normal, nearby prions, turning good prions bad.

    “Apparently it is not vital,” Richt said. “By our analysis — how do they eat, how is their heart rate, how is their immunological function — they seem to be normal.”

    Richt emphasized, however, that the cattle are still young and may show signs of trouble as they age.

    Next came the question of whether they are protected against mad cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE. In one experiment, tissues from one of the animals’ brains were grown in a culture dish and exposed to two different strains of infectious, mad cow prions. As expected, the bad prions did not propagate, according to a report in yesterday’s online issue of the journal Nature Biotechnology.

    A more definitive test — injection of mad cow prions directly into the brains of living prion-free animals –is now underway. Because it can take two years or more for symptoms to appear (and even longer if prions are eaten, the usual mode of transmission), it will be another six months or so before the results will be known, said James M. Robl, Hematech’s president and chief scientific officer.

    Until December 2003, mad cow disease had never been found in American cattle. That made the pristine U.S. herd an ideal resource for companies that extract blood and other products from cattle for use in human pharmaceuticals.

    Later, two other BSE-infected animals were identified, inspiring Robl and his teammates to develop prion-free cattle.

    But policies enacted in recent years by the Agriculture Department have so reduced the risk of BSE in this country, Robl said (current estimates are that, at most, four to seven cases might be found if all 42 million head of U.S. cattle were to be tested) that it may not be necessary for Hematech to use prion-free cattle as it strives to make potent, disease-killing antibodies in cattle for use in humans with life-threatening infections.

    “If BSE becomes an issue, we’ll know we can make these knock-outs,” Robl said. “So it’s more insurance at this point.”

    But what’s even worse is that the mad cow testing regime was actively cut by 90% back in April 2007, three months after the above article was published and two months after Canada had it’s 9th case of mad cow. That 9th case of Canadian mad cow also came one month after the US lifted its ban on the importation of aged cattle from Canada to allow US ranchers access to cheaper Canadian cattle. The justification for cutting back the US screenings by 90%? The low perceived risk and burdonsome costs:

    USDA extends mad-cow testing at WSU lab
    Originally published April 5, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 17, 2007 at 11:45 AM

    By The Associated Press

    PULLMAN – The only mad-cow testing laboratory in the Pacific Northwest will remain open for six more months, but officials insisted Wednesday it wasn’t because of increased fears of the chronic brain-wasting disease in the region.

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) contract for testing at Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine expired March 1 as part of the agency’s efforts to scale back monitoring for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as mad-cow disease.

    The USDA has extended the contract through Sept. 30, with the option for further extensions, WSU officials said Wednesday.

    “Reports circulated in the media a few months ago that stated the WSU laboratory was shutting down,” said Terry McElwain, executive director of the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory at WSU. “The USDA was simply scaling back the amount of testing being done but was intent on maintaining the capacity and ability to ramp up BSE testing in a moment’s notice.

    The contract extension is not the result of increased BSE fears in Northwest herds, he said.

    “There is no increased concern or suspicion for BSE in the U.S. at this time, and the testing we’re doing is part of the USDA’s routine surveillance that protects animal health and our food supply,” McElwain said.

    The WSU lab was opened after the nation’s first mad-cow case, in the Yakima Valley in December 2003, prompted some new safeguards. Since then, it has processed more than 46,000 samples sent from slaughterhouses in five Northwest states.

    It takes fewer than eight hours to test for BSE at the lab, which has the capacity to test several hundred samples a day.

    The USDA announced in March it was reducing its costly national BSE testing and tracking programs by 90 percent. Of 759,000 animals tested, only two other infected cows were found after the initial mad-cow scare, proving the disease is extremely rare, the USDA said.

    Mad-cow disease has infected more than 180,000 cattle worldwide since it was first discovered in Great Britain in 1986.

    At least 180 people worldwide have died after eating meat infected with mad-cow disease in the past two decades. Symptoms can take years to develop.

    Did you catch the logical fun they employed in their decision to cut back testing by 90%? We were assured that testing could be ramped up quickly if an emergency was detected so don’t worry that, by default, the screening is set up miss most cases. After all, it’s rare so there aren’t many cases to catch. In other words, it’s a screening system designed to miss anything other than a large uptick in mad cow cases. And in other other words, the beef industry is comfortable with undetected low levels of mad cow infections…they’re just planning on stepping in if it gets past some threshhold. Sounds safe real safe, doesn’t it? That approach might work for the flu but mad cow ain’t the flu. If you REALLY wanted to track an uptick in something like mad cow, the LOWER your assumed baseline prevalence of mad cow the HIGHER the number of cows (or whatever) you’d have to test. Unless you just don’t mind low levels of mad cow going undetected. And when the low probability event (a mad cow infection), is also an infectious low probability event AND the infection can spread silently for years between cows (and to humans potentially), the assumption of sustained low level infections in our cattle supply is the exactly that kind of situation that turns an undetected mad cow outbreak to an “when” not “if” scenario. As long as the mad cow is NOT manifesting as a slowly incubating condition in young cattle (beef or dairy) the screening regime can probably catch a number of cases that emerge in the lame/downer and elderly cattle (when the original source of contamination is hardest to determine due to the passage of time). But if there’s an emerging problem in young calves – a slow acting problem that doesn’t result in a bunch of lame calves that can be identified – the proposed testing regimes that focuses on older and lame cattle will remain blind to chronic low level prion infection in the younger cattle. At least that’s how it sounds in the articles. I could easily be wrong on this, but the way the news reports characterizes our screening regime there is a huge blind spot for prion infections in young cattle. It’s supposed to not be able to develop in them because they haven’t lived long enough for the prions to spread, but that’s assuming prions behave the same in the future as they have in the past. And in MoJo article below, this latest case in the old dairy cow appears to be an extra virulent form. Plus, the practice of feeding blood products to calves is still going on, allowing transmission to young calves. Because low level infections would required a greater sensivity to detect, there’s going to be a higher number of tests required to pick up a low uptick in prions. That’s the opposite of how things appear to be set up, with healthy look young cattle largely ignored from screening now that things have been cut back 90%, so that’s kind of a big deal IF that “low probability” event of a wide spread infection takes place amongst the young cattle and the mad cow screening regime can’t pick it up.

    And that 90% screening reduction in 2007 is assuming that the detection rate of 2 cows in 759,000 samples tested from 2003-2007 is truly representative of the prevalence and that regulations designed to keep that rate down will be followed by the industry going forward indefinitely. But as this article from Febuary 2007 indicates, the ramped up phase of the initial mass screening in 2004 (following the initial mad cow case in 2003) was voluntary. That sure sounds like the industry has a “choice” as to whether or not they submit lame/downer cattle for testing, a statistical no-no when the profit motive and corporate reputations are involved. And it’s an exceptionally big deal when you’re talking talking about measuring a very low probability event. You can’t miss those downer cattle companies might want to hide when you’re looking for a supposed one in a million event. In May of 2005 there was a proposed mandatory testing regime that was to start by 2009, but in April of 2006 the testing regime was significantly scaled back due to estimates that the prevalence of mad cow as very low (and this was based on the voluntary testing that started in 2004). This was also one month after the third case of mad cow was found in Alabama. And in November 2006, the USDA decided to make the planned 2009 testing regime voluntary. So keep in mind that while there is much touting of the fact that this latest case in CA is the first case found in six years, that might have something to do with the fact that testing was cut back by 90% five years ago:

    Thursday, February 22, 2007 – Page updated at 12:00 AM

    Mad-cow scrutiny is scaled way back

    By Sandi Doughton

    Seattle Times staff reporter

    While Washington ranchers are raising a fuss over Canadian cattle and the danger of mad-cow disease, the region’s only mad-cow testing lab is quietly preparing to close March 1.

    The lab at Washington State University in Pullman opened after the nation’s first mad-cow case spurred a flurry of new safeguards against the fatal, brain-wasting disease.

    But three years later, many of those measures are being dismantled. Others proposed after the infected dairy cow was discovered in Mabton, Yakima County, never materialized.

    Mad-cow disease

    Dec. 23, 2003: A Yakima Valley dairy cow on its way to slaughter tests positive for mad-cow disease. The cow originally came from Canada, where the disease had been first confirmed in May.

    Dec. 30, 2003: The U.S. Department of Agriculture bans “downer” cattle, those too sick or injured to walk, from the food supply.

    Jan. 26, 2004: The Food and Drug Administration proposes banning feeding cow blood, chicken manure and food scraps to cattle.

    June 1, 2004: USDA launches a program to test at least 220,000 animals for mad-cow over the next 12 to 18 months.

    November 2004: USDA starts a voluntary pilot program to track and identify cattle in seven Western states.

    May 2005: Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns says a mandatory, nationwide animal-tracking system will be in place by 2009.

    June 24, 2005: Tests of a Texas beef cow confirm the second case of mad-cow disease in the U.S.

    March 2006: The nation’s third case of mad-cow disease is confirmed in a cow in Alabama.

    April 2006: USDA says it will scale back mad-cow testing after determining the prevalence of the disease in the nation’s cattle herd is “extraordinarily low.”

    Nov. 22, 2006: USDA reverses its plans and says the national animal-tracking program will be voluntary, not mandatory.

    Jan. 4, 2007: USDA says it may lift a ban on the importation of older cows from Canada.

    Last week: Canada reports its ninth mad-cow case.

    Source: Seattle Times archives

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently scaled back mad-cow testing by more than 90 percent, leading to closure of the WSU lab and several others around the country. The agency has backed off plans for a mandatory animal-tracking system, which can help identify the source of an infection and other animals at risk, and now says the program will be voluntary.

    Several of the unappetizing – and risky – practices that came to light in the wake of the initial mad-cow case are still allowed, including the use of cow blood as a food supplement for calves.

    And even the prohibition on slaughtering sickly cows, called downers, for human consumption has not been made permanent, though it is being enforced.

    “There have been some improvements, but USDA stopped short of implementing several important programs that are vital not only to protect against [mad-cow], but to protect the industry against other diseases,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit consumer-advocacy group.

    The USDA says mad-cow is very rare in the United States, and costly testing and tracking programs aren’t necessary. Out of 759,000 animals tested after the initial mad-cow scare, only two other infected cows were found.

    The local cattle industry is most upset by USDA’s proposal to reopen the border to shipments of older cattle from Canada. The first U.S. mad-cow case was an old Holstein shipped from Canada, and ranchers don’t want a repeat of the furor in December 2003 that led dozens of nations to boycott American beef, said Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association.

    Field’s group is backing bills in the state Legislature to strengthen tagging and tracking of Canadian cattle imported to the United States and make it clear that violators can be fined up to $1,000 per animal.

    But local and national cattle groups have fiercely objected to similarly strict tracking for American animals, which is one of the reasons USDA abandoned its push for a mandatory system.

    Because animal tracking is so spotty, investigators were never able to locate all of the cattle that were shipped from Canada with the first infected cow, DeWaal pointed out. The same problems arose after the two other infected animals were found, one in Texas and one in Alabama. Both were born in the U.S.

    Safeguards eased

    Cattle testing: A large-scale mad-cow testing program is ending.

    Animal tracking: A proposed mandatory animal-tracking system will be voluntary.

    Cattle feed: The use of cow blood as a food supplement for calves is still allowed.

    Slaughter restrictions: A temporary ban on the slaughter of ailing cows for human consumption has not been made permanent.

    Canadian imports: A ban on older cows from Canada may be lifted.

    If another case turned up in Washington today, state veterinarian Leonard Eldridge concedes, it would be no easier to figure out where the animal came from or locate other cattle that could have eaten the same feed – considered the most likely route of infection.

    “The need is still there to be able to identify animals and contain a disease quickly,” he said.

    BSE does not appear to jump from animal to animal, but without a good tracking system, it would be difficult to stop the spread of more highly infectious diseases, Eldridge said.

    Canada has adopted a mandatory tracking system that requires detailed record-keeping and radio-frequency ear tags.

    But when the Cattle Producers of Washington sifted through hundreds of pages of documents on younger Canadian animals, which are currently allowed into the state, they found that many lacked the required ID tags, paperwork often didn’t match health records and at least one animal infected with ringworm entered the U.S.

    “What it really boiled down to is that the Canadian system is not even coming close to working properly,” said Willard Wolf, the Spokane cattle broker who is the industry group’s vice president.

    USDA spokeswoman Andrea McNally dismissed the problems as “minor record-keeping” issues, but said the agency is still investigating.

    Wolf said he’s opposed to mandatory tracking in the United States because it’s expensive and not feasible for America’s vast rangelands or the complex way cattle are shipped around the country. He favors an expansion of the existing system of brands.

    The Washington Department of Agriculture estimates only about 6 percent of the state’s cattle owners have registered the location where they keep animals, the first step in a voluntary tracking system.

    Almost all European nations have animal-tracking systems. Many would like to import American beef, but are wary because the system here is so haphazard, said Mo Salman, a mad-cow expert from Colorado State University. “Sometimes they laugh at us,” he said.

    Most European and Asian nations also test a much higher percentage of animals for mad-cow disease than the United States does.

    USDA boosted testing in 2004. During an 18-month period, a total of 759,000 animals were tested, including 45,000 in the Northwest.

    The fact that only two additional cases turned up proves that BSE is exceedingly rare in the U.S, McNally said. That’s why the agency decided to scale back the costly program and target only about 40,000 animals a year. U.S. testing still exceeds the recommendations of the World Organization for Animal Health.

    USDA’s inspector general had criticized USDA’s expanded testing program, saying it could have missed the highest-risk animals. The expanded system was voluntary, so it might not have captured a representative sample of the nation’s herd.

    “It’s as though the USDA was designing a ‘don’t look, don’t find’ system,” said Michael Hansen, staff scientist for Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports.

    Instead of mad-cow testing, Salman of Colorado State University said the agency should improve enforcement of the two rules that provide the best defense against BSE: a ban on processing cattle parts into cattle feed – a practice that is believed to have touched off Britain’s mad-cow epidemic; and rules to keep the most infective cow parts, like brains and spinal cords, out of the human food supply.

    Even those measures have fallen short, according to an analysis by the consumer group Public Citizen that found more than 800 violations in slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants in 2004 and 2005.

    Slaughterhouse waste and dead cattle are still used to make chicken, pig and pet food. The federal government is considering rules that would ban the brains and spinal cords of older cattle from all animal feed, but a wide range of critics say the rules still leave some dangerous loopholes. One is the practice of using cattle blood in formula fed to young calves.

    So not only was the initial sampling of the rate of infection in 2004 a voluntary sampling (which raises serious concerns about how representative that rate of 2 in 759,000 cattle really is), but ranchers were/are still potentially feeding calves blood products and plancenta which is known to spread the disease from mother to calf. AND elderly cows from Canada, which has an even bigger recorded mad cow problem, were now made available for import.

    And, to bring it back around to the latest case of mad cow, now we know that an infected cow was producing milk for who knows how many years in California. On top of the obvious concern of that infected cow spreading the prions to who knows how many differet calves via the feeding of cattle blood formula, just how confident can we really be that prions can’t be spread in milk. As one of the above articles points out, experiments suggest just one bad prion can potentially ruin a brain so the spread of bad prions, even at low levels, is a very relevant question. Today’s prions might not be as virulent as tomorrow’s strains. But we’re assured that everyone is safe because you can’t catch mad cow from milk. Why do we know that you can’t catch it? Because we haven’t observed it happening yet. That’s why. Somehow absence of evidence is evidence of future absence when it comes to low probability unprecedented future events. Even when being wrong about the risks might lead to Zombieland:

    Mother Jones
    Can You Get Mad Cow Disease From Milk?

    -By Tom Philpott
    | Thu Apr. 26, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

    USDA-mandated testing turned up a downed California dairy cow that was infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as mad cow disease, the agency announced Tuesday. According to an exec with the rendering plant where the poor beast ended up, it was chosen for testing completely at random, having shown “no signs” of disease.

    The scenario suggests that relatively recently, a BSE-infected cow was producing milk for public consumption. According to the USDA, there’s nothing to worry about. The agency’s chief veterinary officer, John Clifford, released a statement Tuesday declaring that the the the cow in question had “atypical BSE, a very rare form of the disease not generally associated with an animal consuming infected feed.” He added that “milk does not transmit BSE.”

    USDA-mandated testing turned up a downed California dairy cow that was infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as mad cow disease, the agency announced Tuesday. According to an exec with the rendering plant where the poor beast ended up, it was chosen for testing completely at random, having shown “no signs” of disease.

    The scenario suggests that relatively recently, a BSE-infected cow was producing milk for public consumption. According to the USDA, there’s nothing to worry about. The agency’s chief veterinary officer, John Clifford, released a statement Tuesday declaring that the the the cow in question had “atypical BSE, a very rare form of the disease not generally associated with an animal consuming infected feed.” He added that “milk does not transmit BSE.”

    But acting on a tip from Consumers Union chief scientist Michael Hansen, I have found research that calls that claim into question. The research involves a brain-wasting disease affecting sheep called scrapie, which, like BSE, is what’s known as a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy. Unlike BSE, scrapie is not thought to infect humans; but like BSE, scrapie is thought to be caused by something called prions, which are rather terrifying. Here’s how the Centers for Disease Control describes them:


    So, I’ve found two different studies that suggest that scrapie does in fact transmit from sheep to sheep through milk.

    The first, by French, Norwegian, and British researchers and published in the peer-reviewed US journal PLoS Pathogens in 2008, found prions in sheep milk. The authors state:

    This finding indicates that milk from small ruminants could contribute to the transmission of prion disease between animals. It also raises some concern with regard to the risk to humans associated with milk products from ovine and other dairy species. [Emphasis added.]

    The second, by UK researchers and published in BMC Veterinary Research in 2008, also demonstrated “transmission of scrapie from ewe to lamb via milk (or colostrum).”

    Now, this research doesn’t show that BSE can move from cow milk to humans. But it represents evidence that prions can move from animal to animal through milk. In a phone interview, Hansen stressed that previous studies have suggested that “classic” BSE-not the “atypical” one found in the California cow-does not transmit through milk. But he added that he’s not aware of any studies regarding “atypical” BSE and milk. Moreover, he added that the studies regarding scrapie and milk are using “more sensitive” testing procedures than the previous ones involving classic BSE and cow’s milk.

    He called the possibility that the BSE found in that California dairy cow can pass through milk an “open question.”

    Hansen also noted a report in the Washington Post which stated that the BSE found in the cow is of the L-Type. “If that report is accurate, it’s not good news,” he said. He called L-type BSE to be “far more virulent” than classical BSE and pointed me to a 2008 study in Emerging Infectious Diseases that subjected “humanized” mice (genetically engineered to have human proteins) to L-type BSE. The study found that L-type BSE transited to the mice with “no significant transmission barrier,” while “in comparison, transmission of classical BSE agent to the same mice showed a substantial barrier.”

    I asked Hansen if milk from a cow infected with L-type BSE posed more of a risk than that of milk from a cow with classic BSE. “Oh, absolutely,” he replied.

    And with alarming history and a new case of mad cow at hand, will there at least be a review of our screening policies and maybe an attempt to update them? And will the new mad cow discovery at least prompt the promised “ramped up” higher rate of testing that can take place if a heightened risk is found? Of course not:

    Bloomberg
    USDA Says Mad Cow Test Drop Is No Meat-Supply Threat
    By Stephanie Armour and Alan Bjerga – Apr 26, 2012 9:36 AM CT

    The number of cattle tested for mad cow disease has fallen almost 90 percent since 2005, according to U.S. Agriculture Department statistics, a drop that consumer groups say endangers America’s food supply.

    U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack yesterday said that animal testing is adequate, a day after his department confirmed the nation’s first known case of mad cow disease in six years, a dead dairy animal on its way to a rendering plant in central California.

    About 40,000 cattle were tested in the year ended Sept. 30, down from 399,575 in 2005, according to USDA data. The drop-off followed a surge in testing conducted to establish the prevalence of the disease as the agency was trying to understand the risk and create a long-term monitoring system, John Clifford, the USDA’s chief veterinarian, said in an interview.

    He said testing is only one component of the agency’s strategy to combat mad cow disease, which includes limiting the consumption of certain parts of cattle and restricting the content of their feed. Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute of the Consumer Federation of America, a Washington-based safety advocacy group, said the testing decline means the U.S. is relying too much on other safeguards, which aren’t foolproof.

    Need for Firewalls

    “If you’re not going to test as much, your firewalls better be perfect, and there are loopholes in the firewalls,” Waldrop said. “After going so long without having a case in the U.S., and now we have one, it warrants another look at the surveillance program and ramping it up, at least temporarily, to see if there is something new going on.”

    USDA investigations typically include tests of animals that were in the same herd as the diseased cow, as well as feed the animal may have consumed, Clifford said. Even when an animal tests positive for a form of BSE not connected to feed, as in this case, the investigative procedures are the same, he said. Any offsrping of the infected animal are also checked.

    The USDA has not yet publicly identified the farm where the animal came from, or if the cow had any calves. Clifford would not comment on the current investigation.

    Monthly Fluctuation

    The new case won’t spur more tests, as one case of the disease, known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, in six years doesn’t necessarily indicate increased BSE prevalence, Clifford said.

    The 2004 surge in testing was “an effort to collect as many samples as we could over 12 to 18 months to determine prevalence in the U.S.,” Clifford said. “After that, we went to a regular surveillance level that far exceeds international standards.”

    The surveillance tests focus on older cattle and animals that may be exhibiting symptoms of the brain-wasting disease, he said.

    About 40,000 animals are sampled each year, less than 0.1 percent of the U.S. cattle herd, according to USDA records.

    Testing has fluctuated in recent months, from 2,434 samples in April 2012, down from 4,855 in March and 5,417 in February, according to the USDA.

    Analysis of the 2004 to 2006 data concluded the prevalence of BSE in the U.S. is less than 1 case per million adult cattle, according to the agency. As of Jan. 1, the country’s herd of cattle and calves totaled 90.8 million animals, according to the USDA.

    More testing isn’t necessary now that the USDA has a handle on the extent of the disease, said Eric Mittenthal, a spokesman with the American Meat Institute, a trade group based in Washington that includes Tyson Foods Inc. (TSN) and Cargill Inc. among its members.

    “Some critics have argued that every animal needs to be tested,” Mittenthal said in an e-mail. “That’s like saying that kindergarteners should be tested for Alzheimer’s,” he said. “USDA appropriately focuses its surveillance on older animals and animals that are displaying clinical signs of the disease,” he said.
    Random Tests

    Still, random tests aren’t enough to ensure that diseased cows don’t taint the food supply, Michael Hansen, a staff scientist at the nonprofit Consumers Union of Yonkers, New York, said yesterday.

    U.S. testing “is very consistent with international standards and we want to make sure we abide by those international standards,” the USDA’s Vilsack said.

    Don’t forget that this whole dynamic is much likelier and more destructive during a period of concentrated economic power and the capture of very structure of the economy through cartels and a bought and paid for regulatory scheme. Fascists bring government on the cheap. That’s what “small government” ends up being under stupid political dyanimics of any sort because the same incompetence that creates the bloat cuts the fat. The gutting of mad cow testing because of cost is just insane given the consequences of a mess up. Bad policy and bad private sector behavior in concert is often super profitable but it can end up going awry and requiring a bailout. And mad cows get biological bailouts. Those are the worst.

    Madness: It’s what for dinner.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | April 29, 2012, 11:27 pm
  5. @Pterrafractyl: While I still doubt a Mad Cow prion true epidemic(as in tens of millions of deaths a la Spanish Flu) is even remotely close to likely by any means, this information is indeed worrisome because there very well could be tens of thousands of people who could end up being sickened by this and have symptoms not show up until a few decades afterwards, and then people wonder why so many people are dying of such similar causes.

    I realize that there are still some decent people in the medical establishment and hopefully they can start gaining the upper hand soon. =(

    Although, to be honest with you, I didn’t believe BP when they claimed that the Gulf incident was a ‘low probability’ event. Frankly, I think they knew it was the exact opposite……same may have gone for Fukushima as well.

    Posted by Steven L. | April 30, 2012, 6:33 am
  6. @Steven L.: I’d agree that a massive undetected mad cow outbreak highly unlikely to randomly emerge. And it’s net not “likely” over, say, a ten year time frame. But if we keep up these dangerous industry practices and maintain the conditions necessary for the highly unlikely to actually happen, it will eventually happen. Just give it enough time. Think of that story from last year about the scientists that created an airborne version of bird flu. The random steps required to go from the existing regular bird flu strains to an airborne variety were viewed as improbable events. Yes, eventually it would happen because of sheer number of sick bird farmed around the world, but the research community hadn’t expected these researchers to make the much feared airborne strain so easily. All they had to do was keep passing mutated strain from one animal to the next and in less than 10 iterations that had their airborne strain and voila, nature defied our odds makers. Now, the mutation rates of a virus aren’t the same as the mutation rates in cows. But think about unknowns like the practice of routinely genetically modifying and mass cloning cattle or bioterror. The bioterror potential is especially troublesome because it’s so obvious to the world that there are these large systemic blind spots in the screening. It’s like walking around with a “kick me and then poison-me” sign taped to your back. You’re just asking for it. Because of unknown factors like these I would put the possibility of a serious outbreak some time over the next 50 years as more than remote. It’s still unlikely overall, but I can’t say I’d be particularly surprised at this point if we discovered one day that, say, 25% of people Alzheimers patients were also suffering from low-level mad cow-complications. It also wouldn’t be surprising if that never happened. That’s how I’d characterize my sense of odds of a serious future mad cow at this point: it’s not probable but still reasonable possible given what we now.

    Most of the ways we could potentially destroys ourselves are individually unlikely. It’s the sheer number of graveyards that we’re whistling past these days that’s going to seal our doom.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | April 30, 2012, 9:06 am
  7. The supposed advantages to the public of cartel operations are uniformity of production quality, economies of scale and streamlined regulation. None of these ever quite materialize. Instead we get price collusion, lower quality, corruption of the entire chain of production and an industry large enough to control its own legislative agenda. That’s happened with coffee, bananas, sugar, oil, steel, tennis shoes and baby rattles over a century. Many small suppliers of a commodity is what makes for an equitable market. Full employment, many medium wealthy people and no billonaires is the result of such a market. Limits to personal net worth and a global end to secret banking are a first step. OWS needs that as a definite agenda. Then we would see the real battle lines drawn.

    Posted by Dwight | April 30, 2012, 10:47 am
  8. @Pterrafractyl: And I very much agree with you. It is far better, no, INFINITELY better, in this case, to be extra-cautious and never have a single outbreak, than to be totally careless and for tens of thousands to start dropping dead. And unfortunately, if carelessness continues, then a significant outbreak is indeed possible within half a century or so.

    I do hope things will get better, but we must continue to remain as vigilant as possible if that is to be achieved.

    Posted by Steven L. | April 30, 2012, 4:38 pm
  9. @Dwight: That is definitely something I can agree with.

    Posted by Steven L. | May 1, 2012, 7:58 am

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