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AMI: U.S. Response to BSE Extraordinary; Reflects Decade Of Planning, Preparation

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

(WASHINGTON, DC) - The U.S. response to a single case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) has been extraordinary and reflects more than a decade of planning and foresight, according to AMI Foundation President James H. Hodges. Hodges submitted written testimony today in advance of a joint hearing of The House Committee on Government Reform and House Committee on Agriculture, where he will testify tomorrow.

According to Hodges, “The U.S. remains a very low risk country. Despite speculation to the contrary, the facts show that our risk level is many orders of magnitude lower than Europe's,” Hodges said. “We will not experience the animal disease epidemic or the number of human illnesses that occurred in the U.K. because we took preventive steps to protect both human and animal health. For more than 15 years, we have learned and adopted interventions based on the U.K.'s experience.”

It is noteworthy that within a week of the first BSE case in the U.S. on December 23, 2003, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a comprehensive action plan to strengthen BSE firewalls implemented a decade earlier. “Clearly, USDA had considered the possibility of BSE and had an action plan ready, which was announced with record speed. Not only was the timing of the announcement impressive, so too was its scope.”

Hodges said the meat industry fully supports USDA’s dramatically expanded BSE surveillance program, which will find the disease, if it exists, with a high degree of statistical confidence. “Testing cannot guarantee that BSE is not present in the animal, nor can testing protect public health. Removal of specified risk materials (SRMs) protects public health.” Since January 2004, SRMs have been banned from human food supply.

Hodges expressed caution about treating BSE testing as a food safety silver bullet. Current test methods can only detect the disease a maximum of six months prior to clinical onset of the disease. The youngest case diagnosed last year in Europe occurred in an animal that was 50 months of age, which means the disease could not have been detected with existing testing methods until the animal was almost four years old. “Testing young animals is scientifically indefensible,” Hodges said. He noted that one leading BSE expert said that testing young animals constitutes “veterinary malpractice.”

“Given the average age of clinical onset is 4 to 7 years and the limits of testing methods, you can readily see why the USDA surveillance program is appropriately focused on the cattle population that is most likely to exhibit the disease,” Hodges said. “The industry supports a robust animal disease surveillance program. If the disease is present in the U.S. we want to know it and we want to know its prevalence. That's a very important way we can effectively determine if our BSE prevention measures are working properly.”

Hodges also detailed important facts that must be considered as BSE policies are examined:
· More than 180,000 cases of BSE have been diagnosed in cattle since the disease was first discovered in the United Kingdom in 1986. And more than 95 percent of the cases worldwide have occurred in the U.K. At the height of the epidemic in 1992 more than a 1,000 cases per week were being diagnosed. In 1992 alone, more than 36,000 cases were diagnosed. Experts have estimated that between 3 and 4 million cases of BSE actually occurred, but were not diagnosed.
· By contrast, two cases of BSE have occurred in North America, both of which were determined to be of Canadian origin.
· The number of BSE cases in the U.K. has declined every year since 1992. The epidemic appears to be drawing to a close with approximately 1,200 BSE cases being diagnosed worldwide last year. This decline is attributable to animal feeding restrictions put in place the UK after the BSE epidemic was widespread. In the U.S., a precautionary ruminant-to-ruminant feed ban was implemented seven years prior to the first case.
· British citizens were exposed to massive doses of the infective agent during the early years of the epidemic due in part to the routine consumption of brains in many British dishes. Even given this massive exposure, slightly more than 150 human illnesses in the world have been attributed to the BSE agent. The number of Creutzfeld-Jakobs Disease (vCJD) illnesses has declined for four consecutive years and only one case of vCJD was reported last year.
· American consumers do not routinely consume brain and spinal cords. They were banned from the human food supply, along with other potentially infectious material, immediately after the first U.S. BSE case was announced.

“Bottom line: Potential human exposure to the BSE infective agent in the U.S. is exceedingly small compared to the massive human exposure that occurred in the U.K. The U.S. is not Europe. We will not experience the animal disease epidemic or the number of human illnesses that occurred in the U.K. because we took preventive steps to protect both human and animal health,” Hodges said.

“Remember that beef is safe. The tissues that can contain the infectious agent (specified risk materials or SRMs) are removed in plants and not permitted in the human food supply,” he said. “Experts from around the world agree that removing SRMs from the food supply is the most effective means to protect public health.”

“The fact is, the risk of BSE in U.S. cattle is very low and the risk to human health from BSE is even lower,” Hodges said. “U.S. prevention measures implemented long before the first case of BSE have been essential to herd health. No case of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease has ever been associated with eating U.S. beef products. This is a fact we tend to forget - but it is essential to consider as we contemplate BSE policy changes.”

AMI represents the interests of packers and processors of beef, pork, lamb, veal and turkey products and their suppliers throughout North America. Together, AMI's members produce 95 percent of the beef, pork, lamb and veal products and 70 percent of the turkey products in the U.S. Headquartered in Washington, DC, the Institute provides legislative, regulatory, public relations, technical, scientific and educational services to the industry. Its affiliate, the AMI Foundation, is a separate 501(c)3 organization that conducts research, education and information projects for the industry.

For more information contact:
Dave Ray
Vice President, Public Affairs
Ayoka Blandford
Manager, Public Affairs

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