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Animal diseases, threats to humans – clarifying the issues

By Marilyn Bay Wentz

News of the Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD) outbreak in Great Britain earlier this year, along with reports of new Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) cases, have resulted in haphazard, often erroneous, news reports on the two diseases. Consumer media often lumped the two together, making the public uneasy about eating beef at all.

As examples of the inadequate understanding of FMD and BSE, a headline on one of the major networks announced: “Mad Cow Disease Spreads.” The article that followed was on the increase of FMD. Shortly thereafter, Colorado newspaper headlines declared “Two Coloradoans Die from mad cow disease.” In fact, the deaths were caused by a form of Creutzfeldt Jakob disease associated with contamination in the operating room. The deaths had nothing to do with consumption of beef infected with BSE.

With these erroneous news reports in circulation, it is no wonder that the public is confused about these diseases and the threat they pose to human health. Some consumers say the uncertainty will result in their eliminating or greatly reducing meat in their diets.

Since the FMD outbreak in Great Britain, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union has served as a proactive resource for consumers and the media wishing to clarify issues related to FMD and BSE.

RMFU also has worked hard in the Colorado Legislature to pass H.B. 1086, a bill that would mandate country-of-origin labeling on all meat, fresh produce and honey sold in Colorado grocery stores. Unfortunately, the bill failed due to a tie vote in the House Appropriations Committee.

In news releases and media interviews, RMFU always emphasizes the distinction between FMD and BSE. As always, RMFU spokespersons stress the food wholesomeness and economic value of buying food from local producers whenever possible.

Other measures taken by RMFU include the support of the ban on importation of meat and other animal products from any country that has not eradicated FMD. RMFU backs the measures taken by U.S. Customs to prevent FMD from entering the United States.

On a personal note, as a sheep producer with a vested interest in both FMD and BSE, recent developments encouraged me to delve into some of the more technical issues related to these diseases. For the fellow producers who share my interest, here is some of what I learned:

Q: Why not use the FMD vaccine to stop the disease?

A: Tests cannot distinguish animals with the disease from animals that have been vaccinated for FMD. This could result in healthy animals having to be destroyed, or FMD being inadvertently spread by diseased animals that are thought to be vaccinated animals.

Q: If FMD-infected animals are safe for human consumption, why not process them?

A: Transporting animals to slaughter facilities would invariably spread the disease to healthy animals due to the highly infectious nature of FMD.

Q: Why was it possible to obtain animal byproduct proteins in animal feeds after the 1997 ban by USDA?

A: The 1997 ban was on ruminant-to-ruminant feeding. Bone and blood meal would have been acceptable as long as they were not derived from ruminant animals. Also fish meal is still on the acceptable list since fish do not carry Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy.

Q: If BSE is transmitted through animals eating tissue from infected animals, why did U.S. authorities seize animals from the imported Vermont sheep flock that were born in the United States, along with those imported from Europe and thought to have been infected before importation?

A: Scrapie (the sheep disease in the same “family” of diseases as BSE) may be transmitted slightly differently than BSE. Scrapie is known to be transmissible from ewe to fetus, so any lambs from an infected mother could be infected. Another reason such comprehensive measures were taken is that it is possible that the scrapie from the United Kingdom is different, even more virulent, or more able to cross species, than the U.S. strains of scrapie.

Note: Thanks to National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Rick McCarty and University of Illinois Associate Professor Susan Brewer for technical assistance.