The Van Trump Report

Why the U.S. Beef Industry Wants to Halt Brazil Imports

Back in early September, Brazil confirmed two cases of so-called “atypical” Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis (BSE), aka mad cow disease, at two separate meat plants in the country. The cases are considered “atypical” because they occur spontaneously and sporadically and are not related to the ingestion of contaminated food, according to Brazil authorities. Now, Brazil has reported two cases of a neurodegenerative disorder in Rio de Janeiro which are being investigated for the possibility of BSE.

Brazil says the human cases are not related to beef consumption but the U.S. beef industry wants further assurances. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) has called on USDA Secretary Vilsack to immediately suspend all imports of fresh beef from Brazil to the United States until the agency conducts a thorough risk assessment and review of the processes Brazil uses to detect disease and other threats in its beef supply chain. The association for independent cattle producers, known as R-CALF, agrees with the NCBA but goes one step further in seeking a suspension of all beef product imports from Brazil.  

One key issue that NCBA points out is Brazil’s “history of failing to report atypical BSE cases in a timely manner.” According to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), Brazil took more than eight weeks to report the two confirmed cases of atypical BSE at the affected meat plants. That goes against OIE requirements that countries report within 24 hours any animal disease event that could be of international concern for public health emergencies.

For those not familiar, BSE, widely referred to as “mad cow disease,” is a progressive and fatal neurologic disease of cattle. It is caused by an unconventional transmissible agent known as an “abnormal prion protein.” For reasons that are not yet understood, the normal prion protein changes into a pathogenic (harmful) form that then damages the central nervous system of cattle. BSE belongs to a family of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs) that includes scrapie in sheep and goats, chronic wasting disease in deer, elk and moose. In humans, prion diseases include classic and sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) among other syndromes. Prion diseases are usually rapidly progressive and always fatal.

BSE, which is not contagious, exists in two forms: classical (C-type) and atypical (L-type or H-type). The atypical BSE forms occur spontaneously at very low levels in all cattle populations, particularly in older cattle, usually eight years of age or older, and does not appear to be associated with contaminated feed. Like classic or sporadic CJD in humans, it seems to arise rarely and spontaneously.

Research indicates that the first probable infections of BSE in cows occurred during the 1970’s with two cases of BSE being identified in 1986. BSE possibly originated as a result of feeding cattle meat-and-bone meal that contained BSE-infected products from a spontaneously occurring case of BSE or scrapie-infected sheep products. There is strong evidence and general agreement that the outbreak was then amplified and spread throughout the UK cattle industry by feeding rendered, prion-infected, bovine meat-and-bone meal to young calves. The BSE outbreak in the United Kingdom peaked in January 1993 at almost 1,000 new cases in cattle per week. In March 1996, the United Kingdom’s Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC) announced the identification of 10 cases of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) in people believed to have contracted it by consuming contaminated beef products.

There have been six BSE cases in U.S. cattle, occurring between 2003 to 2012. Of those, the first was a case of classical BSE that was imported from Canada, while the rest have been atypical BSE. Following the discovery of the first case in December 2003, U.S. beef exports fell to $1.1 billion (0.3 million tons) in FY 2004, down from $3.0 billion (0.9 million tons) in FY 2003. U.S. beef and beef product exports did not regain pre-BSE volumes until 2011. It wasn’t until 2013 that the OIE upgraded the U.S. to “negligible risk” status for BSE.

NCBA notes in its letter to the USDA, “Brazil enjoys the benefits of market access awarded to countries with the credibility of OIE’s negligible risk designation – credibility that is based on the timely reporting of BSE cases to the OIE. NCBA has serious concerns that the recent events are evidence that Brazil may lack credible food safety and animal health systems, and Brazil’s irresponsible behavior may pose a significant threat to the health and safety of the U.S. cattle herd.”  

Brazil beef imports to China have been suspended since the first cattle cases were confirmed in September. Japan and South Korea have also halted Brazilian beef imports. At the same time, U.S. imports of Brazilian beef have soared. Exports of Brazilian beef to the U.S. were up +183% during the first 10 months of this year, according to Brazil’s Economy Ministry, with a notable surge occurring after China restricted imports. (Sources: Drovers, USDA, Financial Times, Bloomberg)

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