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Monday, July 05, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Guest columnist
Universal mad-cow testing about politics, not science

By Jan R. Busboom
Special to The Times

Jan R. Busboom
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Perhaps more than any state in the union, Washington knows the hysteria that can occur in connection with a case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or "mad-cow disease."

As an animal scientist who has followed this issue and recognizes the near-zero risk that BSE poses in the U.S., it is troubling to consider all of the money and energy being diverted toward BSE instead of diseases that pose real risks, like influenza, which has killed thousands just in the U.S., and malaria, which affects millions worldwide.

The fact is, while it is important to be vigilant against animal diseases, there is no evidence that BSE is a cause for concern among Americans. Moreover, mandatory testing of all cattle for BSE, as some have proposed, will divert resources from more-productive uses and provide no additional safety assurance.

In the United States, only one BSE case has been diagnosed, and that in a cow imported from Canada born before 1997 — when feed controls were implemented to protect cattle from BSE. There is no evidence that BSE is a latent problem in American cattle.

Furthermore, the BSE disease-causing agent has never been found in the beef muscle we consume, and the parts of the animals that can contain the BSE agent in infected animals — so-called "specified risk materials (SRMs)" like the brains and spinal cords — are removed from the human food supply.

The multiple firewalls that have been implemented have prompted leading experts to conclude that the risk of BSE is almost nil. That said, BSE is an important political and trade issue. Washington residents should be gratified that Washington State University will play a key role in the BSE surveillance program.

The WSU/BSE testing laboratory will be responsible for testing thousands of surveillance samples collected in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. My strong support for extensive and targeted surveillance testing of the animals most likely to test positive for BSE must be differentiated from the controversial issue of mandatory testing of all animals.

Consider these facts. BSE cannot be detected until six months before the animal develops clinical symptoms. These, on average, appear at 5 years of age. Eighty percent of U.S. cattle are processed when they are younger than 24 months of age. Testing these young animals when they will never test positive for this disease simply makes no sense. Indeed, it's like administering tests for Alzheimer's to school-age children.

Testing animals before the disease can be detected is a costly exercise that offers no real assurance of safety. Robust surveillance testing of a statistically significant portion of the U.S. cattle population monitors the incidence of BSE in the U.S. herd; but mandatory universal testing is a waste of resources that does nothing to ensure the food on your table is any safer, but does assure that it will be more expensive.

So why all the emphasis on universal testing, given that it's very costly and has very limited effectiveness? The answer, unfortunately, lies in the political, not the scientific, arena. Japan, our largest foreign trading partner in beef, is demanding it. The catch is that the value of the Japanese market is worth more than $1 billion annually, roughly the same amount it would cost us to universally test for BSE — so, it's a wash.

And the impetus for mandatory testing in Japan is, I believe, primarily a public-relations strategy by the Japanese government meant to regain consumer confidence lost when BSE occurred there several years ago. In other words, testing for political, not scientific, reasons.

Farmers, meat packers and parents can all agree on one thing: We want safe, affordable food that nourishes our bodies and enhances our lives. We want the government and industry to take the necessary steps to ensure the safety and affordability of our food based on good science and hard data. We can adequately and safely monitor the health of the U.S. herd through selective testing, and ensure the safety of the consumer through the removal of the SRMs.

Forcing the meat industry and American consumers to spend $1 billion a year on universal testing for BSE makes about as much sense as developing a blood-screening test for Alzheimer's and then using the test on 12-year-olds. Let's not fight mad-cow disease with mad science.

Jan R. Busboom is a professor of animal science at Washington State University in Pullman.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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