U expert, lab fight mad cow disease

Branden Peterson

Cattle farmers are keeping a close eye on unfolding events around the first case of mad cow disease in North America in more than a decade.

World health officials confirmed a case of mad cow disease in Alberta on May 20. News of the outbreak led many U.S. and Canadian health officials to publicly state beef remains safe to eat, despite consumers’ health concerns.

While U.S. Department of Agriculture officials continue to investigate the case, they said they are confident the risk that North American cattle might have unnoticeably contracted the disease remains low.

Dr. Will Hueston, the University’s Center for Animal Health and Food Safety director, said he believes while alarm is warranted, the results of further investigations in Canada regarding the sick animal are needed to assess the situation.

As an international mad cow disease expert, Hueston worked in England during extensive outbreaks of the disease during the mid-1990s. It was a time when as many as 1,000 new cases of mad cow disease were found each day. Hundreds of Europeans contracted a human variation of the disease, called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Mad cow disease – also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy – is a degenerative neurological disease found in cattle.

BSE includes a family of diseases such as scrapies in sheep and chronic wasting disease in elk and deer.

“In 1989, we said it could happen here. Most of my efforts have been finding – if BSE does occur – what we can do to limit its spread,” he said.

Hueston credits three prevention methods started in 1989 with keeping mad cow disease outside the United States to date.

The first method is to ban the importation of animals and animal-products from countries with BSE cases.

Second, a surveillance program actively collects brain tissue from cattle with irregular behavior.

Finally, a 1997 ban stopped production of cattle feed with rendered animal products containing the protein responsible for the transmission of mad cow disease.

After thousands of negative test results for mad cow disease in the United States, Hueston fears people might stop feeling the need to continue tests in order to save money.

“If we’re successful at preventing disease, we’re criticized for wasting the public’s money on something that never occurs,” he said. “On the other hand, if disease occurs, we’re criticized for not having done enough.”

Hueston calls it the curse of his job and the curse of prevention.

Even though mad cow disease has not been found in the United States, Hueston said public financing for surveillance cannot be lost.

“Your firewalls won’t work as effectively as they can if you don’t have the resources to keep them in place,” he said. “We can exclude the animals at the border, but if there’s nobody at the border to check, they’ll walk right across.”

University lab testing?

Last year, U.S. health officials conducted nearly 20,000 brain tests on cattle for BSE.

The University’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory on the St. Paul campus can test for many of mad cow disease’s related disorders, but the lab is not certified to test specifically for mad cow disease.

Instead, it collects cattle brain tissues before passing them to a USDA laboratory in Ames, Iowa.

The Ames lab is the only laboratory in the country certified by the USDA to formally diagnose the disease.

Kevin Elfering, inspections director for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Meat, Egg and Poultry, said he is concerned conducting tests at more than one location might endanger accuracy.

If the Ames laboratory remains able to keep up with demand for the mad cow disease tests, Elfering believes it should remain the only location for conducting them.

“You can get to the point where you’re testing, testing and testing,” he said.

In 2002, the United States conducted nearly 20,000 brain tests for BSE.

“Some people wouldn’t consider that high. But if you’re looking at the number of animals that have the disease, I think we have averted it. We have learned a valuable lesson (from other countries),” he said.

Minn. farmer confident

Like many of his farming colleagues, beef cattleman Duane O’Flanagan of Almelund, Minn., said he quickly calls his veterinarian at any sign of abnormal behavior from his herd of more than 100 cattle.

Currently serving as president of the Tri-County Cattlemen, O’Flanagan leads a group of more than 150 local farmers who gather monthly to discuss ideas and listen to veterinarians speak about trade issues.

As word broke about the Canadian mad cow disease diagnosis, he first worried about how the news would affect the marketplace.

Despite the news, he said, he remains confident in current procedures designed to keep mad cow disease out of the country.

“The USDA keeps so on top of this,” he said.

O’Flanagan said he appreciates a USDA program designed to track animals’ origins.

“If there’s a flare-up, they can track that right back to the producer,” he said.