Cyndi's Two Cents

The cow that stole Christmas

On December 23, twenty years ago, I received a call from the Office of Communications at U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. The gentleman heading up the office at the time was a friend and mentor and I thought he was calling with his annual “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” message. Unfortunately, that was not the case. My friend, Larry Quinn, was calling to tell me a cow that was born in Canada that had been in a Washington state dairy herd for many years before it was sent to slaughter, had tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). That was the first documented case of BSE in our country. That cow stole Christmas in 2003.

Hysteria ensued. Markets tanked. Global trade partners closed their doors to U.S. beef. Media reports were rife with misinformation and conjecture that eating any beef could put the entire population at risk of dying. Politicians and lobbyists had a heyday, as a panicked public sought wisdom from elected officials.

The U.S. beef industry came under greater scrutiny that I could have ever imagined.

It was in 1986 that some cattle in the United Kingdom were diagnosed with BSE. Cows with BSE experience progressive degeneration of the nervous system. Affected animals may display incoordination and difficulty rising and abnormal posture. Because of these visible symptoms, tabloid journalists in the UK dubbed BSE “mad cow disease.”

In 1989, the United States banned the import of cattle from countries where BSE was known to exist in native livestock. Because research pointed to BSE originating from feeds with infected protein prions, USDA banned the feeding of ruminant protein feeds to other ruminant animals in 1997.

It was in May of 2003 that the first case of BSE in North America was confirmed in an 8-year-old cow in Alberta, Canada.

Shortly after Christmas of 2003, I wrote, “This news event is the most significant in my career as an agricultural journalist. How we in the agriculture industry handle it could make the difference that will impact consumer confidence, animal health, food safety, processing, feeding, traceability, and any number of practices for many years to come!”

What many people did not realize is that a response plan designed to assess risk and how to communicate said risk was in place. Looking back, although more than thirty countries closed their borders to U.S. beef when that Holstein cow from the Washington-state dairy was confirmed positive on December 23, things could have been so much worse. Consumer confidence in the safety of U.S. beef did not waiver.

It took ten years, but by December 23 of 2013, all those countries that had closed their borders to U.S. beef were opened back up. Including the cow that stole Christmas, there have only been six cases of BSE detected in the U.S. while Canada has had a total of nineteen cases. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 185,000 cases of BSE have been confirmed in the United Kingdom.

I still recall the video clip of a staggering Holstein that was played repeatedly, and it reminds me how important it is to just take a breath and keep our opinions to ourselves until we actually know all the facts. Give science a chance. We all fare better when managing for risk instead of by catastrophe.

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