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Don’t Freak Out About Beef Trade With Mad Cow Countries

by Mark Hay

January 23, 2015
Illustration by Addison Eaton

To anyone who follows the business of red meat in America (beyond shoving it down their maw), 2015 got off to a controversial start, as the U.S. government announced that we’re going to start importing beef from Ireland again. This probably sounds like some minor, niche agricultural issue until you consider why we stopped eating Irish cows back in 1996: mad cow disease. After two decades of closure and paranoia that transformed global agricultural markets, by now opening our meat gates to the Emerald Isle, America is declaring that it’s once again ready to swap meat with the whole of Europe.

But this decision has people worried, because the U.S.’s decision to resume trade doesn’t mean that Europe has defeated mad cow. Cases of the disease still crop up from time to time, raising the specter of a new outbreak in America. But the worrywarts have nothing to fear, thanks to meat screenings on both sides of the Atlantic and the statistical impossibility of mad cow infecting the type of beef we’ll be importing. Instead, this deal will just be a boon for farmers on both sides of the Atlantic.  

Yet their worry is understandable given just how sinister mad cow is as a disease. More properly known as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), mad cow is a degenerative disease that eats away at an animal’s nervous system, punching holes in the brain and spine. Caused by unwitting cannibal cows eating other cows’ brain and spine tissue (which gets mixed in with their feed and contains the irregular and heat-sterilization-resistant prion protein), the disease can lie dormant until an animal is at least two years old, then begins manifesting behavioral disorders and ends in inevitable death.

Human consumption of beef contaminated by mad cow-riddled nervous tissue can result in Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD). The often-fatal affliction similarly damages the nervous system, resulting in memory issues, behavioral changes, and cognitive impairment. Cases of the disease started popping Europe throughout the 1980s, only to metastasize into a massive epidemic around 1996. The outbreak led to the deaths of about 226 people from CJD, the prophylactic slaughter of around 3.7 million cows in the U.K. alone, and the transformation of the world’s cattle markets. Yet despite border closures, the disease continued to spread, demonstrating its resilience and the gaps in early monitoring and detection schemes. It turned up in America in 2003, causing the recall of 10,000 pounds of beef, reforms against feeding cattle with the spinal or neural tissue of other ruminants, and even more stringent inspections.

This cow doesn't have BSE, but she looks pretty mad anyway. Photo by John Haslam via Flickr

In recent years, through embargoes, culls, and screenings, we’ve gotten the numbers down to a dozen or two annual cases of BSE globally. Most of them are isolated, like those in America in 2006 and 2012—so effectively controlled that they don’t spread or cause much panic. Yet our fear of BSE is so strong that even one case can lead countries to shut down beef trade with a nation for a year or two. And Ireland had at least 9 cases of BSE detected between 2010 and 2013, which makes our decision to resume trade seem like utter madness to some.

Yet the world increasingly understands that one or two cases are not cause for national conniption fits. Recognizing how extensively Europeans monitor their cattle—checking every animal for BSE, as opposed to checking a small sample fraction as the U.S. does—and how rare contracting CJD actually was even at the height of the crisis, many nations have lifted their bans on beef from the European BSE epicenter. Even in less stringent countries, like the U.S., many seem to believe our controls are strong enough and CJD cases rare enough that one BSE-infected cow is no longer enough to shut out a trading partner.

Some argue that we may just be underreporting or mislabeling CJD cases to avoid panic and protect markets. But given how much BSE-related news we do accurately and faithfully report, and the lack of severe repercussions, it’s more likely that we’re more resilient to the epidemic than we once thought and that we’re especially good at controlling against outbreaks now. These days it seems like the only reasons a nation could conceivably issue a ban are if one case in an exporting nation snowballed into many more, if there were a lack of adequate screening at the outbreak site, or if the receiving nation didn’t have its own adequate monitoring facilities to reassess the quality of meat from prone (but basically cautious and conscientious) trading partners.

Typical Irish cow. Photo by Jeremy Noble via Flickr

Although the U.S. has been slower to act on it than other nations, America has recognized that there are countries that have had their act together (in terms of BSE at least) for years. All the way back in November 2013, the government announced that it would begin easing restrictions on European beef imports in recognition of the negligible risk and emergent international norms on BSE management. So the recent U.S. decision to start importing beef from Ireland again is not some new, radical choice. It’s the end stage of one-and-a-quarter years of foot dragging, following a prior decision to overcome paranoia and harmonize American policies with the rest of the world.

Even if there were a significant risk of BSE contamination in feedlot cattle coming from Ireland, Americans needn’t worry, as those aren’t even the cows slated for importation. The US plans to only import boneless cuts of beef in general, which have a negligible risk of contamination with spinal or neural tissue even if BSE is present in a cow. But as a net beef exporter, we don’t have much interest in importing the lower-quality and chum-fed cows that we already produce in-country. Instead we’re most likely to purchase grass-fed Irish beef (which has no risk of BSE contamination as the cows don’t eat feed with animal products in it) as a high-end product.

So yes, we are planning to import beef from a country that still has the occasional case of mad cow. No, this is not any reason to get our collective knickers in a bunch. It’s a just cause for excitement for American farmers who have a new market for their goods (although the European Union seems to dread the fact that this might mean their shelves will soon be flooded with factory-farmed, hormone-laden meats). And for the Irish it could mean up to $30 million a year in new agricultural exports. It’s a stripping away of fear to restore profitability to cattle herders. And that, so long as it does not undo our reasonable cautions and monitoring, is to be embraced

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Don’t Freak Out About Beef Trade With Mad Cow Countries