While he cautions that it’s still preliminary information, USDA’s chief veterinary officer Dr. Ron DeHaven says his department’s primary line of inquiry leads back to Canada.

“We are working to verify that information. Officials on both sides of the border are seeking only one thing, and that is the truth. We want to know exactly where this animal came from and, whether that turns out to be U.S. origin or Canadian origin, we'll let the chips fall where they may and call them as they are,” DeHaven said at a Dec. 28 technical briefing on the subject.

According to DeHaven, USDA is continuing to work with Canadian officials to verify the trace back including DNA testing, and a continued search of all records related to the cow in question. USDA’s is also tracing the other 73 head of cattle that came into the United States or appear to have come into the United States with the indexed or positive cow. In addition, two cattle facilities in the state of Washington have also been quarantined to stop movement of animals on and off the premise to expedite and prevent complications of USDA’s investigation.

“The purpose of that quarantine or hold order is not to stop the spread of the disease. It's important to realize that BSE is not a contagious disease. It's not spread by contact, direct contact, animal to animal. Rather, it's a disease with the primary means of transmission of consumption of affected proteins or proteins from an infected animal,” DeHaven says.

According to Dr. Ken Petersen with USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, the beef products related to the Dec. 23 BSE-related recall did not contain those tissues known to contain the BSE agent, including the brains, spinal cord and distal ileum.

“The recalled beef represents an essentially zero risk to consumers,” Petersen says. “The eight-state recall was initiated out of an abundance of caution following the report of one cow testing presumptive positive for BSE. Even though we remain confident in the safety of these beef products we are and we will continue to verify distribution and control of all products related to the recall.

“The risk related to consumption of the recalled muscle meat is virtually zero,” he notes. “And that's because of the cautions that were put in place revolving around the extent of this particular recall. So the meat per se, because it did not contain any spinal cord-related material, we think is a very, very low risk to consumers.”

Adds Dehaven: “There is in fact a large body of scientific evidence to suggest that meat from cattle is not a tissue at risk as it relates specifically to BSE. The Organization of International Epizootics, recognized by the World Trade Organization as the animal health International standard-setting body, acknowledges that countries can safely import meat products from countries that are affected by BSE even from countries that have a moderate to high risk of having BSE.”

Dr. Stephen Sundlof with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says the Canadian government has implemented restrictions similar to those in the United States to prevent the spread of mad cow disease. It’s also important for consumers to understand, he says, that cattle are very, very much more susceptible to this disease than humans.

Since 1989, the USDA has banned the importation of live ruminant animals and products from ruminant animals from the United Kingdom, and any other country where BSE had been diagnosed. In 1997, USDA prohibited the importation of live ruminants and products from live ruminants from all of Europe primarily due to the trading practices between member states of the European Union.

In fact, he says, both the United States and Canada have had a ban in place since 1997 that prohibits the feeding of ruminant protein to ruminants, such as cattle, knowing that that is the primary if not only mechanism for spreading the disease from one animal to another.

With the recent finding of a BSE positive cow in the United States, DeHaven says USDA is looking at any and all appropriate changes that could be made to the country’s BSE-related regulations.

More specifically, USDA is considering any changes that could be made in partnership with the industry, such as increased testing, or changes to the feed ban. At the point, DeHaven says, the changes are likely to include “all of the above.”

“There have been many comparisons made between our situation in North America and the situation in Europe as it relates to BSE. Even though we are very early in this investigation there is no indication that we have anywhere near the magnitude of the problem that Europe has experienced over the past years,” he says. “Indeed, we have reason to be confident that our preventive measures have afforded us a high level of protection. Some of those measures would include the surveillance program that we've had in place for over 10 years now, targeting that high-risk population; the fact that we've had a feed ban in place to prevent animal-to-animal transmission – and that's been in place since August of 1997; and that we stopped the importation of animals from the European Union in 1989, again which is the most likely source of any infection that we would have in North America.”

Those aren’t the only changes being considered.

A proposed rule published in November would again allow some “minimal risk” Canadian cattle products be imported into the United States, including live cattle under 30 months of age.

However, DeHaven says, “Clearly we will have to take into account this new situation, the findings of our investigation relative to this new situation as we review those comments, and consider whether or not to publish a final rule.”

The BSE incident is also likely to affect beef exports to Japan, which quickly closed its doors to American beef products at the news.

That’s unfortunate, according to Dehaven. “We feel very strongly in the United States that international trade and any trade restrictions should be well founded in the science,” he says. “Unfortunately with this situation what we've seen internationally is, again, an over-reaction, trade restrictions imposed more out of public perception than based on the science that we know about this particular disease. We think that the restrictions that are being imposed should be lifted.”

The United States, he says, has a “very good” program in place to prevent BSE in this country, and any trade restrictions being imposed are “not well-founded in science.”

e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com