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The reverberations of the United States' first case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), more popularly known as Mad Cow Disease, continue to be felt. Late yesterday, it was confirmed that what was being called a single "presumptive" case of Mad Cow Disease had in fact been confirmed as being BSE.

The confirmation came from the Veterinary Laboratories Agency in Weybridge, England, which has had significant experience with Mad Cow Disease in the UK.

The USDA is scrambling to trace the origins of the single Holstein cow in Washington State that tested positive for Mad Cow, since the cow almost certainly was infected several years ago. The incubation period is four-to-five years.

Once the herd is identified, it will help the government figure out whether the disease is more widespread. Cattle get sick by eating feed that contains tissue from the brain and spine of infected animals. The United States has banned such feed since 1997.

It is known that the cow had lived since 2001 at the Sunny Dene Ranch in Mabton, Wash., a town 40 miles south of Yakima. The dairy farm is under quarantine, and the herd is being slaughtered because of the Mad Cow confirmation.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) held a briefing this morning at which it said that it has quarantined a second herd in Washington state.

Ron DeHaven, the USDA's chief veterinarian, said in the briefing that the investigation would be broadened to cover other states, and that the USDA did not know at this point whether the cow had been born in another state or even in Canada.

In addition, USDA said that a calf that was born to the infected cow also is under quarantine, even though transmission of the disease through birth is considered unlikely.

Here's what else we know at this time:

  • Government officials are saying that there is no threat to the food supply because the cow's brain, the spinal cord and the lower part of the small intestine all were removed before it was sent on for processing. While people can catch a fatal variation of the disease by eating infected beef products, it is said that muscle cuts of beef such as steaks and roasts are safe.

  • The New York Times reports today that USDA is "debating whether to do far more screening of meat and change the way meat from suspect animals is used, department officials say.

    The officials declined to say exactly what they would recommend, but acknowledged that European and Japanese regulators screened millions of animals using tests that take only three hours, fast enough to stop diseased carcasses from being cut up for food."

    According to the NYT, US inspectors tested fewer than 30,000 of the roughly 300 million animals slaughtered in the last nine years, "and they get results days or weeks later."

    Part of the problem with the US system, according to experts, is that it is designed as a "surveillance system" rather than a food safety testing system.

    The NYT reports that cattlemen would endorse adopting more rapid tests.

  • The USDA has issued a recall for beef slaughtered along with the infected cow Dec. 9 at a meat company in Moses Lake, Wash, though USDA Secretary Ann Veneman has said the recall was just an extra precaution.

  • USA Today reports that Brian Wesbury, chief economist at Griffin Kubik Stephens and Thompson, a Chicago investment banking firm, said that the Mad Cow discovery "could cost the beef industry as much as $5 billion" in coming months," though mostly in the international markets and the restaurant/foodservice industry.

    A different expert, Purdue University agricultural economist Chris Hurt, told Newsday that the US beef industry could lose $2 billion as a result of lost exports and falling domestic prices. Hurt said that he expected US cattle prices could drop by 12-16 percent because of Mad Cow.

  • Albertsons announced that it has removed a number of beef products from its Washington, Oregon, and Northern Idaho stores:

    • Pre-packaged 1 lb. package of 85% lean (15% fat) ground beef with a sell-by-date of December 25, 2003

    • Pre-packaged 2 lb. package of 85% lean (15% fat) ground beef with a sell-by-date of December 25, 2003

    • Pre-packaged 1 lb. package of 85% lean (15% fat) ground beef patty with a sell-by-date of December 25, 2003.

    • 91% leanest (9% fat) ground beef purchased from the Butcher Block Service Case between the dates of December 16, 2003 and December 23, 2003

    Albertsons is asking any customers in Washington, Oregon, and Northern Idaho, who purchased the following products, to return them to their local Albertsons store. The company said that there are no Albertsons stores outside of these three states that are affected by the recall.

    The recall is part of a voluntary recall by Verns Moses Lake Meats of raw beef that may have been exposed to BSE. Interstate Meats, an Oregon-based ground beef supplier, notified Albertsons and several other Northwest retailers that certain product provided by Interstate meat is subject to this recall.

  • Giant Foods of Landover, Md., is hanging signs in its stores to assure customers its beef is safe.

    Companies such as Wal-Mart, Food Lion and Pathmark said they would accept customer returns of any and all beef products, according to USA Today.

  • As of now, imports of beef from the US have been banned by Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Australia, Chile, Mexico, Russia, and South Africa.

KC's View:
While we think that it is extremely important not to jump to conclusions about the possible implications of this single case of Mad Cow Disease, retailers and manufacturers need to be extremely vigilant about laying the groundwork for comprehensive communications programs that inform and enlighten consumers.

There will be tons of misinformation out there. One can only imagine the conversation at Christmas dinner tables across the country…and how much additional misinformation this created.

There will be actual experts out there, presumed experts, and conspiracy theorists - all of whom will be competing for bully pulpit time. It is critical that the food industry not be reactive to the way these folks try to spin the issue, but be specific and credible in addressing the issues.

While it is tough to believe that this is going to remain a single, isolated case, the single best argument supporting this likelihood is the way events have transpired in Canada - where there was a single case identified last May, and no additional ones found.

One has to prepare for what can happen, not for what has happened.