Jumping Through Hoops Once Again

By Tom Cook, President, National Renderers Association

On the first day of the annual National Renderers Association (NRA) spring meetings recently held in Las Vegas, NV, a member asked if there were any hot issues or surprises to expect at the upcoming meetings. I told him there wasn’t. Oh, there would be some important issues to address, but I didn’t expect any surprises.

Well, things can change pretty quickly. Shortly after that conversation, my cell phone rang. It was a friend and colleague from Washington, DC, calling to give a heads-up on a rumor circulating: another case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was about to be announced by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). She said the sources of the rumor were sound enough that it probably was the real thing.

I initially thought the meetings were going to be turned upside down, but luckily that was not the case. NRA members weren’t happy to have this disruption, but the confirmation of a BSE case and subsequent events went much smoother than expected.

First, it was an atypical case, a very rare form of the disease not generally associated with an animal consuming infected feed and is different than what would be referred to as a classical case. The last case of BSE detected in the United States (US) in 2006 was also atypical.

The USDA gave a briefing via conference call for the media, industry, and interested parties. Officials started out by emphasizing that the food supply was safe. The briefing was thorough and covered all the bases. US systems and safeguards to prevent BSE are working, as are similar actions taken by countries around the world. USDA took the affirmative steps by stating this detection in no way affects the country’s BSE status by the World Organization for Animal Health, or OIE. The United States has all the elements of a system in place that OIE has determined ensures beef and beef products are safe for human consumption: a mammalian feed ban, removal of specified risk materials, and vigorous cattle surveillance. Consequently, this detection should not affect US trade.

With the USDA moving quickly and aggressively, it preempted US trading partners from overreacting. However, not all is perfect as renderers experienced export restrictions to Indonesia. At NRA’s request, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service responded to Indonesian inquiries assuring the safety of US meat and bone meal exports. US Embassy officials in Indonesia were also quick to seek a solution to the trade stoppage. Hopefully, this issue will be resolved very soon.

Given that it had been six years since the last case of BSE, some reporters and industry individuals needed to be educated, or reeducated. Generally, USDA officials satisfactorily answered the questions.

Media reports, in general, were either positive or muted, with the exception of the national television networks. I woke up the morning after the announcement to see coverage on the National Broadcasting Company news program Today, which dragged out a video from over 20 years ago showing a dairy cow in the United Kingdom slipping, sliding, and falling in a barnyard. The American Broadcasting Company (ABC) and CBS Broadcasting, Inc. morning news shows were about the same. Apparently, the USDA media took the major networks and some news outlets to task for ignoring the information they provided and going with their own misinformation.

Of course, the mere news of BSE brought out some of the crazies who always have a cause. An ABC news reporter said the safeguards would be even stricter if it were not for the strong cattle lobby, but the consumer groups were somewhat split. There were some who tried to make it a food safety issue, but USDA effectively countered those claims. Some consumer groups have responsibly recognized that the various firewalls are working and have moved on, believing there are more important food safety issues to address. Then there is the group of critics of various stripes that never met a zero tolerance regulation they didn’t like and will never be satisfied.

A major frustration for the renderers in Las Vegas was why this case deserved any publicity at all since it was not the classic BSE. Do we have to go through all the hoops every time an atypical case is diagnosed? The NRA raised the question with USDA officials and their response was that if they did nothing, they would be criticized for not being transparent and there were different schools of thought on how to deal with notifying the public.

It is frustrating, but between industry and government, sound firewalls are in place. Surveillance and testing programs have assured confidence with most of the public. The United States has been through so much with none of the doomsday predictions materializing. A lot of hard work has taken place over the past 25 years to mitigate the introduction of BSE into this country.

A solid foundation has been laid with what has been done, so with this last case, media attention lasted a very short news cycle. Maybe if there is a next time, there won’t be any news at all.

June 2012 RENDER | back