Thursday, April 26, 2012

Is more testing needed for BSE?

Given all the hype about a newly discovered case of BSE or “mad cow”, it seems I must comment. I will not give you the main message, that meat is still safe, although it is. Nor will I try to explain the disease and why this atypical case is really “no big deal”, although it isn’t.  The USDA and CDC websites do a great job with all those facts. PLEASE READ them.

As an epidemiologist, I must make some comment on the question of testing. A reporter was asking me whether this case suggests we need to test more cattle for BSE. The short answer is “NO”. The testing program was designed by able-brained epidemiologists and statisticians with thorough review by experienced international colleagues. It is designed to do just what it did, find those few cases that occur. The surveillance system is actually quite strong; able to detect BSE in the US “herd” at the very low level of 1 positive in 1 million animals!

Most importantly, we must ask, “what would we do if the USDA tested more animals?”  The answer, “the same thing we do now.” Currently, ill animals do not enter the food chain, just like this latest cow did not. Positive animals are reported and carefully investigated. Currently, every cow entering the food chain has BSE infectious material removed so there is no risk to humans.

So what would happen if we doubled the testing from current high level of 40,000 per year to 80,000?  We would double the cost and not increase the safety, ….even a smidge.


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