Following the US’ latest case of mad cow disease discovered in California earlier this week, loose regulations could make it impossible for US authorities to identify all other animals exposed to the disease in the US.
Despite proposals made years ago, the US remains one of the few beef-exporting nations without a mandatory identification system to trace a cow from birth through the slaughterhouse and beyond.
Department of Health Minister Chiu Wen-ta (邱文達) said on Thursday that he would immediately suspend imports of US beef if the World Organization for Animal Health takes the US off its list of countries considered safe from bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or “mad cow disease” as it is commonly known.
“As the infected meat did not enter the US food supply chain and preliminary reports have shown the infection to be an isolated case, we will not halt US beef imports for the time being,” Chiu said.
The US Department of Agriculture is now searching for any calves the infected cow might have had or any cows that were herd-mates in the animal’s early years, when BSE most often strikes.
However, the Washington Post reported on Thursday that this latest case of mad cow disease has reignited a long-running debate about a “weak link” in the US beef supply.
“If we discover that this case was part of a larger outbreak, we might not be able to find all the animals in that cohort that were exposed to the same feed,” Center for Science in the Public Interest member Sarah Klein said.
“If the feed is not the problem, then this is yet another warning shot. The question becomes: Do you wait for the big outbreak before you can justify the need for a system to track these animals?” she added.
US Representative Rosa DeLauro said the new California case -highlights the need for a comprehensive animal identification system.
Six of the world’s eight largest beef-exporting countries already have such an identification system in place.
Computer programs in those six countries would almost immediately be able to find all of an infected cow’s offspring and all the other animals exposed to it.
Such animals could then be quickly tested and if necessary, destroyed, before they could enter the food system.
With no such system in place in the US, the Department of Agriculture is unlikely to be able to find and test all of those animals associated with the diseased cow in the past.
A mandatory tracing system has been opposed by some members of the cattle industry in the US who claim it would be expensive and constitute unnecessary government interference.
US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack will soon introduce a new plan to keep track of all cattle on a state by state basis.
However, the powerful agricultural industry lobby might still prevent it from passing into law.