Memo on USDA's BSE Surveillance Procedures

To:                   Members of the Media

From:               Courtney Rowe, Press Secretary 

U.S. Department of Agriculture

Good afternoon. In the past 24 hours, as USDA’s investigation into a finding of BSE in a dairy cow in California has progressed, a focus on the number of BSE surveillance tests conducted by USDA has produced an unfortunate amount of misleading articles meant for our public, as those articles fail to note that BSE surveillance testing is just one of three interdependent and highly effective safeguards in place to protect Americans and our food supply from BSE. The fact is, a stringent feed ban, the removal of all central nervous tissue during slaughter, and our BSE surveillance tests all work in concert to protect Americans and our food. And they do work—very well. Yet, some have chosen to focus on the number of tests—a number which is 10 times greater than what is required under international standards—rather than the real story: That the United States has one of the most successful and effective BSE-prevention programs in the world, helping to ensure the safety of our food for millions of consumers every day.  

Yesterday, USDA’s Chief Veterinary Officer Dr. John Clifford explained in a blog post how, thanks to these three interlocking safeguards, cases of BSE detected worldwide have plummeted 99 percent since the height of the disease in 1992.

I am bringing this blog post to your attention again today so that you have the facts. As more information related to our epidemiological investigation is available, we will provide it. Thank you.

 USDA’s Chief Veterinary Officer on the Recent BSE Case (aka Mad Cow)

Posted by Dr. John Clifford, Chief Veterinary Officer for the United States of America, on April 25, 2012 at 4:00 PM

On April 24, USDA confirmed the nation’s 4th case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) in an animal that was sampled for the disease at a rendering facility in central California.  This animal was never presented for slaughter for human consumption, so at no time presented a risk to the food and milk supply, or to human health in the United States.

We have a longstanding system of interlocking safeguards against BSE that protects public and animal health in the United States.  The most important is the removal of specified risk materials – or the parts of an animal that would contain BSE should an animal have the disease – from all animals presented for slaughter in the United States. USDA inspectors at slaughter facilities also prevent cattle that are nonambulatory or are displaying signs of neurological disease or central nervous system disorders from entering the human food supply.

A strong feed ban protects cattle from the disease.  In 1997, the FDA implemented regulations that prohibit the feeding of most mammalian proteins to ruminants, including cattle.  This feed ban is the most important measure to prevent the transmission of BSE to cattle.

Scientific evidence shows that the safeguards we and many countries around the world have in place against BSE are highly effective.  Last year, only 29 cases of BSE were detected worldwide.  This is a greater than 99 percent reduction in the number of cases since the height of the disease in 1992.

We found this particular case through our ongoing BSE surveillance program.  The surveillance program allows USDA to detect the disease if it exists at very low levels in the U.S. cattle population and provides assurances to consumers and our international trading partners that the interlocking system of safeguards in place to prevent BSE are working.

We test for BSE at levels ten times greater than World Animal Health Organization standards.  We take samples from approximately 40,000 animals each year, focusing on groups where the disease is more likely to be found.  The targeted population for ongoing surveillance includes cattle exhibiting signs of central nervous disorders or signs associated with BSE, nonambulatory animals, and dead cattle. The samples come from locations like farms, veterinary diagnostic laboratories, public health laboratories, slaughter facilities, veterinary clinics, and livestock markets.

In this case, the samples came from a rendering facility in California.  The samples were initially sent to the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory, then on to USDA’s National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Ames, Iowa for further testing.  USDA confirmed the animal was positive for atypical BSE, a very rare form of the disease not generally associated with an animal consuming infected feed.  We are reaching out to international laboratories with more experience with this atypical form of BSE to assist us with our investigation.

Our investigation is ongoing.  But here are a few things that we do know for a fact.  It is perfectly safe to eat beef and drink milk without concern for BSE.

The animal’s carcass was held at the rendering facility and then destroyed.  It was never presented for processing for human consumption.  At no time did it present a risk to the food supply.  And scientific research indicates that BSE cannot be transmitted in cow’s milk, even if the milk comes from a cow with BSE.  The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that tests on milk from BSE- infected animals have not shown any BSE infectivity. Milk and milk products, are, therefore considered safe.

As our investigation progresses and we learn more, we will provide updates.  You can visit our BSE information center at to learn the latest and get more details about BSE in general.