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Experts lock horns on mad cow disease

WASHINGTON -- The discovery this week of the fourth U.S. case of mad cow disease was one of two things for food safety experts: a validation of a decade-long focused surveillance regime or a lucky break that highlights the need to revisit previously scrapped efforts for more comprehensive surveillance.

For now, calls for greater monitoring seem likely to go unheard, both because the “atypical” case appeared to be a one-in-a-million genetic mutation that officials said posed no threat to the food supply, and because of tightening budgets.

Funding for cattle health programs in the proposed 2013 budget is set to fall by 20 percent compared to two years earlier.

Discovery of the infected dairy cow at a rendering plant in central California may stoke an intensifying debate over food safety in the United States, already a major topic after the “pink slime” furor this spring, fungicide-tainted orange juice from Brazil and never-ending efforts to control disease in food caused by salmonella and E. coli bacteria.

While major importers from Japan to Canada pledged to maintain beef shipments and U.S. officials stressed that the “atypical” case had occurred in the cow spontaneously and was not in others animals, critics were quick to respond.

“Yesterday's announcement of the fourth case of BSE, or mad cow disease, in the United States clearly highlights the need for a comprehensive national animal identification system,” said Representative Rosa DeLauro, a senior Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and a frequent critic of its handling of livestock issues.

“We were lucky to identify this case.”

Mad Cow Safeguards Worked: USDA

But government officials say luck had nothing to do with it.

While the USDA tests only a fraction of the herd for mad cow — about 40,000 head a year, versus a total of 34 million slaughtered last year — it does so under a protocol that is aimed at higher-risk animals and, it says, can detect mad cow at the level of less than one in a million head.

In the past decade, efforts to impose more thorough surveillance and testing measures and a system to track cows back to potentially infected herdmates were knocked back, deemed too onerous and costly for the industry to bear.

The two major U.S. safeguards are a ban on using cattle protein in cattle feed, which can lead to animal-to-animal transmission, and keeping parts of the cow that can carry high concentrations of the disease, such as brains, spinal cords and nervous tissue, out of the food supply.

“We test for BSE at levels 10-times greater than World Animal Health Organization standards,” said USDA chief veterinarian John Clifford in a blog posted on Wednesday.

The disease takes years to develop, so when it does occur spontaneously it chiefly found in older cattle. In the United States, most slaughter cattle are butchered before two years of age, too young for the disease.

The California cow is the fourth known U.S. mad cow case. The first was in 2003, and no Americans have been diagnosed with mad cow from the animals. Government and industry officials lined up after the Tuesday's announcement, touting the detection of the infected animal as proof of the strength of the existing U.S. measures.

“I am confident of the safety of American beef,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who insists U.S. testing is based on world standards, told Reuters Insider TV.

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