seal  Purdue News

December 31, 2003

Journalists wishing to speak to Purdue mad cow experts may call sources directly. Over the New Year's weekend, Department of Agricultural Communication staffers will be available to aid in reaching sources. Contact: Beth Forbes, (765) 494-2722, (765) 497-7102 (home), (765) 427-5179 (cell); Chris Sigurdson, (765) 494-8403, (765) 497-2433 (home), (765) 404-5959 (cell),


Experts can comment on implications of mad cow disease

Detected for the first time in the United States in December 2003, mad cow disease, technically known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, is a disorder that affects the central nervous system of cattle. Purdue University experts in meat science, international trade, agricultural economics and animal disease diagnostics can speak to what happens when food safety, science and politics create worldwide concern.

• Animal tracing can benefit consumers and producers:

The United States Department of Agriculture is stepping up efforts to put into place an animal tracking system, which is good news for producers and consumers, said Purdue agricultural economist Ken Foster.

While tracking where bad meat has moved can happen relatively quickly, tracing a diseased cow back to the farm can take days. "The U.S. Animal Identification Plan currently in development has the goal of a minimum of 48 hours to trace an infected animal's origin," Foster said.

"These systems have been debated by government and the livestock industry for decades because there are costs involved. But if we're looking for ways to mitigate trade problems, help with marketing and assure consumer confidence, live-animal traceability is a good way to do that."

Foster also foresees a push for certification standards as a result of BSE concerns. "Certification ensures the quality of food products. Antibiotic use, environmental compliance, animal well-being, breed and other characteristics have all been certified or could be certified in order to meet consumer demands. CONTACT: Foster, (765) 494-1116;


• Human health risk from mad cow disease is very low:

The USDA and the Food and Drug Administration maintain that the risk to human health from mad cow disease is very low and is further lowered by additional recently announced safety measures.

The USDA has banned slaughtering sick or "downer" cattle for human consumption, banned additional cattle parts from being used in the food supply and banned mechanically separated meat. While this is significant, we can't lose sight of other food pathogens, a Purdue expert said. The risk of other food-borne pathogens is much better known, and it's higher, said David Gerrard, professor of animal sciences.

"One danger is that we may pull food inspection resources and attention away from preventing other more dangerous food pathogens such as E. coli 0157H:7," Gerrard said. CONTACT: Gerrard, (765) 494-8280,


• Economic impact and farm income assessed:

Cattle futures have continued to drop to the limit set by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, as buyers and sellers try to find a price level for live U.S. cattle. "At this point, nobody wants to be the one who owns the steer," said Chris Hurt, a Purdue agricultural economist and livestock market analyst.

Helping the cattle market find a level that attracts buyers as soon as possible is critical to the industry, he said. "The loss of U.S. beef exports represents about 10 percent of U.S. production," Hurt said. "If all other factors remain the same, we would look for a 12 percent to 16 percent drop in cattle prices. This probably adds up to a $2 billion hit to the beef industry at the farm level in 2004."

The beef sector is a major contributor to the total U.S. farm economy. This year alone, farm-level beef sales are projected to approach $37 billion, up $7 billion from 2002. CONTACT: Hurt, (765) 494-4273,


• International trade implications of BSE:

More than 30 countries have closed their borders to American beef in reaction to the news that a BSE-infected cow was found in Washington state. The international reaction is identical to what the United States did in May 2003 when Canadian officials announced one of their steers was infected with BSE.

"While the ban on U.S. beef is not good news, it won't be like the devastation Canada saw when it lost over 50 percent of its beef market," said Philip Paarlberg, a Purdue agricultural economist who specializes in international trade and trade agreements.

Unlike Canada, which once exported almost 60 percent of the beef it produced, American beef producers depend on export markets for only 10 percent of their product sales. In fact, the United States is a net importer of beef, bringing in 1.6 million pounds, compared to the 1.3 million tons we export.

Reopening those borders to U.S. beef will take a two-pronged sales approach, Paarlberg said. "We'll need to convince both the government and the consumers in the other countries that our beef is safe. But first we'll have to figure out what we're willing to do to recapture a 10 percent export market, " he said. CONTACT: Paarlberg, (765) 494-4251,


• National and state testing and oversight for BSE:

Protecting the public from diseased cattle is the ultimate goal in regulating the beef industry. Testing of animals for illnesses, including BSE, is a major defense in preventing contaminated meat from reaching the marketplace.

But because so many questions remain as to how BSE is spread, no concrete answer exists as to how much testing is enough. Purdue veterinary pathologist and director of the Indiana Disease Diagnostic Laboratory Leon Thacker says that the new USDA rules are excellent preventative measures and closely mirror those of Indiana, which have been in place for more than four years."

Any sick or "downed" animal in Indiana must be checked for disease, but that's not true in every slaughterhouse in the country," Thacker said. "In those states without meat inspection, the USDA handles it. There is some movement to check all at-risk animals and also to inspect all animals over 30 months of age. This would increase our probability of picking possible cases."

Currently animals under 30 months aren't believed at risk, especially in the United States, where beef cattle are usually slaughtered at a younger age, he said. CONTACT: Thacker, (765) 494-7460 (office), (765)-404-5829 (cell),


Purdue Agricultural Communications staff will be available to help media reach experts over the New Year's holiday weekend. More information also will be available at the Purdue Extension website under the mad cow link.


Writer: Jenny Cutraro, (765) 494-2722,

Susan Steeves, (765) 496-7481,

Ag Communications: (765) 494-2722; Beth Forbes,
Agriculture News Page

* To the Purdue News and Photos Page