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The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) yesterday said that a case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), better known as mad cow disease, has been discovered in a single California dairy cow in the state’s Central Valley.

It is the first confirmed case of BSE since 2006 to be found in the US. One was a Canadian-born cow in 2003, one was a Texas cow in 2005, and the third was an Alabama cow in 2006.

However, USDA officials said that the cow “was never presented for slaughter for human consumption, so at no time presented a risk to the food supply or human health.”

Ranchers said that the discovery proves that the current screening program is effective. "This clearly illustrates the firewall is working. This is only the fourth case in nine years and none of them were headed for the food supply," Mike Smith, a projects manager with Harris Ranch Beef in Coalinga, tells the Los Angeles Times.

"This is a big deal. People have a lot of fear over mad cow disease and for good reason," Stevie Ipsen, director of communications for the California Cattlemen's Assn., tells the Times. "But our country's meat is still the safest in the world. We're confident people will carry on eating beef."

The Times writes that “Michael Hanson, a senior scientist with Consumer Reports and a longtime critic of U.S. mad cow disease policy, said the discovery could be alarming.

“In 1997 the U.S. changed the rules for cattle food. Until then, rendered cows could become part of cattle feed. The strategy was to get the disease out of the food chain and then the disease would eventually disappear.

“‘If it turns out this cow is less than 14 years old, it proves my biggest concern: Cattle feed is still not protected from mad cow,’ he said.

"’We still allow risky practices. You can't feed cows to cows directly. But you can feed cows to pigs and chickens and then feed them to cows.’”

However, the Times reports that “officials believe it is a rare spontaneous case and not linked to contaminated food.”

There has not been a broad international reaction to the discovery, but one South Korean retailer - LotteMart - immediately pulled all US beef from its shelves.

Reuters writes that “the cow, which was from California, was found at a rendering plant, the USDA said, adding it was still tracing the exact life of the infected animal. Rendering plants process diseased or sick animals into non-edible products that are used in such things as soap, glue, solvents, shoe polish, and anti-freeze.”
KC's View:
If indeed there have only been four cases of mad cow disease in the US, then they’re right - the screening system is working.

Though I have to admit that the fact that only 40,000 cows a year are tested by USDA doesn’t inspire an enormous amount of confidence in my mind.

I also have to wonder how this revelation, coming on the heels of the recent pink slime controversy, affects how people feel about eating meat .. especially at a time when the cost of beef seems to be skyrocketing. Ultimately, it is all about trust.

And trust, to use the oft-quoted Latin proverb, like the soul, never returns once it goes.