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The Washington Feed

Mad cow case revives memories, industry concerns

April 27, 2012

The recent discovery of a Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or BSE, cow in California brings back lots of memories. I recall being summoned to the office of David Bossman, then president of the American Feed Industry Association, for a trans-Atlantic interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation. The United Kingdom was getting hit really hard by the brain-wasting disease. The beef industry there was being devastated. Consumers were experiencing one of the worst food safety panics ever.

When we finished the interview, Dave looked at me and asked, “What do you think is going to happen?” I replied, “We’re going to get bombarded by the news media.”

Since the disease was thought to be spread in herds through contaminated feed, the issue was ours. The American Feed Industry Association quickly accepted the challenge and lead role. For the next three months, we did practically nothing but respond to media inquiries. We provided interviews to every imaginable media outlet, all the major ones—Wall Street Journal, ABC, NBC, CNN, Fox news, Time magazine, Bloomberg, USA Today, New York Times—you name it, we did it.

In my role as vice president of public relations for the American Feed Industry Association, I always kept track of the news media inquiries we received and recorded the results. However, we received so many requests for interviews and backgrounders that I gave up trying to log them. I’d get off the phone with one reporter and two or three more would be waiting. Dave and I would return from doing an interview at a local news studio only to find a request to come to our offices for another. 

I am very proud of how the association and industry handled the BSE issue. I have always believed that the U.S. feed industry wears a white hat, a fact reaffirmed during the BSE crisis through our cooperation with the government, prompt responses to the news media and distribution of helpful information to the general public. Food safety was and always has been the industry’s number one priority.

The recent BSE episode sent shudders through the beef and feed industries and precipitated a drop in cattle futures on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Still, the California case should not be of great concern. It is the first one in the U.S. in six years and the U.S. Department of Agriculture responded quickly, reassuring consumers that it is an isolated incident. Experts believe that some cases can appear spontaneously. They call them an “atypical type” of BSE, which is very rare. The California case is a good example.

The American Feed Industry Association supports the USDA’s assessment. Current President Joel Newman said, “There are two important items to emphasize—the targeted surveillance system is working, and the food supply is safe.”

Without question, the measures in place to safeguard the nation’s food supply are effective. One good example is the Facility Certification Institute whose charge it is to audit U.S. feed mills to verify that those using restricted use protein products are in compliance with the Food and Drug Administration’s BSE regulations. The Facility Certification Institute is now in its 12th year of successfully fulfilling that responsibility.

Facility Certification Institute Chairman Richard Severson also feels the recent case shouldn’t prompt undue worry. “It was not caused by feed and the animal never got into the food chain,” he stated.

However, Severson cautions that the California incident brings to light the fact that the disease is still out there. “Everyone needs to continue with the safeguards we have in place to keep the disease under control and prevent its proliferation in the U.S. The Facility Certification Institute is certainly doing its part.”

USDA Chief Veterinary Officer John Clifford agrees with Severson. “We have in place all the elements of a system that ensures beef and beef products are safe for human consumption: a mammalian feed ban, removal of specified risk materials and vigorous surveillance.”

To quote a famous British poster: “Keep Calm and Carry On.” 

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