Couching its decision in regulatory language and releasing the information on a Friday afternoon, the USDA has made it possible to import beef from countries with active bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, also known as "mad cow" disease), such as the UK, for the first time since 1998. Simply put, the USDA has decided -- in a rule that will become final 90 days from November 1, 2013 -- that the United States will no longer set its own animal import regulations, but will instead comply with the World Organization for Animal Health (known as OIE). This means that any country whose beef and / or cattle exports have been deemed a "negligible risk" by the OIE is a country from which the US will permit beef and / or cattle exports.
Opponents of this move include R-CALF, an advocacy group for cattle ranchers, and Consumers Union, a consumer advocacy group. Supporters include the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, likely because US support of the OIE standard for beef safety may increase US beef exports; on May 29, 2013, the OIE deemed US beef to be of "negligible risk" for BSE, so countries using the OIE standards will import US beef.
Although opting the US into the OIE regulatory framework may increase foreign support for US beef imports, consumer advocates worry about the potential for contamination of the American food supply. Although it is generally believed that a human must eat brain or spinal cord material from an infected animal in order to contract variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), the human form of BSE, it is not clear that all potential transmission methods are known. A recently published study indicates that one UK citizen in every 2,000 is a carrier of vCJD. Indeed, the most recent vCJD death in the UK was within the past two years.
Additionally, both BSE and vCJD are known to be transmissible via blood transfusions from infected animals and humans, respectively. Some cattle ranchers have expressed concern that allowing British cattle into the country could endanger the entire US cattle population. Indeed, contrary to recommendations by the Organic Consumers Association, the US has not instituted a ban on the feeding of blood to animals. (For additional information on the feeding of blood to animals destined for human consumption, please see David Kirby's Animal Factory, the section on fetal calf serum, page 291.) Given the multi-year incubation period of vCJD and the lack of complete information on the transmission of prion-related illnesses, the USDA's proposed rule is troubling.