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USMEF: Fallacy of Overreliance on Testing

20 October 2008

US - An overreliance on meaningless testing and a lack of focus on documenting the effectiveness of steps that are making significant inroads against Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) are hindering a hungry world’s access to protein, driving up food costs and harming local economies as well as the U.S. beef industry.

These were key findings presented by a leading global expert on BSE at a conference for Japan’s opinion leaders hosted by the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF) in Tokyo Oct. 15.

Dr. Ulrich Kihm, former chief veterinary officer of Switzerland with extensive experience in the research and analysis of infectious animal diseases, including BSE, was a featured speaker at the seminar. He was joined on the dais by Dr. Masahiko Ariji, a researcher for the AMITA Institute for Sustainable Economics, and a panel of Japanese journalists and health industry experts.

Speaking to an audience of more than 80 Japanese government officials, meat industry representatives, media and opinion leaders, including Takeshi Mikami, chairperson of the Food Safety Commission for the Government of Japan, Dr. Kihm informed the audience that Japan’s insistence on testing 100 percent of cattle for BSE – regardless of age – has been ineffective. He stated that the youngest documented case of BSE to his knowledge was 34 months of age.

“You can say to people that food is safe,” said Dr. Kihm, “but you can never say there is no risk – not only for BSE, but for other reasons.” However, Dr. Kihm noted that the effectiveness of removal of specified risk materials and the implementation of bans on the use of meat and bone meal for livestock feed have dramatically reduced the incidence of BSE and the risk of vCJD (variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease).

Dr. Ariji told the audience that there is a risk of BSE for consumers in Japan, but it is a risk that has not been accurately reported.

“There is a risk/reward factor in many activities. People climb mountains for the reward of getting to the top,” said Dr. Ariji. “When it comes to beef consumption, there is no communication of benefits – only talk about risk. The risk of limiting access to beef is limiting a source of food. The reward is providing consumers with food at lower prices and it could save resources and energy (in production).”

Dr. Ariji proceeded to outline the risks of death associated with a variety of circumstances based on available statistics and human exposure. His estimates show that there is virtually no chance of anyone getting vCJD in Japan, but that the risk from other activities is much higher. For example, the chances of dying from the following in Japan compared to contracting vCJD are:

  • Wasp sting: 1,200 times more likely
  • Choking on a rice cake: 44,000 times more likely
  • Mountain climbing: 300,000 times more likely
  • Drowning in a bath: 380,000 times more likely
  • Smoking (leading to cancer or heart attack): 4.4 million times more likely

“The risk of dying from BSE is one of the smallest, least measurable food-related risks,” said Dr. Ariji. But he noted that opinions of risk are divided, and the problem is not with the risk, but how it is communicated. He said that if all focus is on the risk and none on the reward, the risk can be overestimated.

The cost of BSE

The audience at Wednesday’s seminar heard several measurements of the cost of BSE – and the impact of inaccurate testing protocols – on Japan and the U.S. beef industry.

Philip Seng, president and CEO of USMEF, who introduced the speakers, noted that the U.S. International Trade Commission recently issued a report detailing that the U.S. beef industry has lost an estimated $11 billion in missed sales and opportunities and increased costs since BSE was discovered in the United States in December 2003.

An important factor in that was the immediate loss of the Japanese market for several years, and the limitation in recent years to ship beef only from age-verified cattle 20 months of age or younger. Prior to the discovery of BSE, Japan was the leading export market for U.S. beef. These costs to the U.S. industry are in addition to the huge costs of testing in Japan and losses to the Japanese meat industry as well.

A panel of distinguished Japanese media and health industry experts acknowledged that Japan’s insistence on 100 percent testing for all cattle has been a costly error, but one that is difficult to reverse because it has been portrayed to consumers in Japan as an essential safety step.

Following up on Dr. Kihm’s report that BSE testing is not meaningful for animals younger than 30 months of age because the disease typically does not reach detectable levels – if it is present at all – until the animal is between four and six years of age, Dr. Ariji stated that Japan has wasted 1 trillion yen (roughly $10 billion) on animal testing that has not saved any lives.

”The political atmosphere at the time (BSE was first reported in Japan) would not allow limited testing,” said Dr. Yoshihiro Ozawa, an advisor to the international world organization for animal health (OIE) and a panelist who provided commentary on the presentations. “I regret that scientists didn’t make the point that cattle that were not tested were still safe. It is important to say that the 100 percent testing is not necessary, otherwise what is not correct will still be done.”

Dr. Ozawa was joined in the panel discussion by several journalists: Yojiro Ikawa, editorial writer at the Yomiuri Shimbun, the world’s largest circulation newspaper with an estimated circulation of 26 million; Hiroki Ohse, senior commentator for NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), and moderator Isao Tanabe, former editorial writer at the Asahi Shimbun, a daily newspaper with more than 8 million circulation.

Dr. Ozawa addressed the question of two reported cases of BSE in Japan among cattle younger than 30 months of age, which have fueled the calls for testing of cattle of all ages.

“There is a question of whether you can trust Japanese scientists on this (report of cattle ages 21 and 23 months that reportedly tested positive for BSE),” he said. “Were the animals really BSE infected? The answer was very vague and ambiguous. It was not proven. From our point of view, it was not BSE. The tests were not done in accordance with international standards. Since then, the youngest animal found (positive for BSE in Japan) has been 48 months. I can’t clearly say that any animals younger than 48 months have been found.”

Dr. Kihm noted that with the decline in positive tests for BSE in the EU and the evidence suggesting the success of the ban on meat and bone meal in limiting spreading of the disease, there is discussion of raising the recommended cutoff age for BSE testing for cattle to 48 months. That is based on the expectation that testing will not find an animal younger than that age that would test positive.

Mr. Ikawa of the Yomiuri Shimbun agreed that 100 percent testing is unnecessary, noting that his newspaper has stated that there is no value in local Japanese government (prefectures) allocating scarce funds to pay for testing now that the Japanese national government has eliminated funding for 100 percent testing.

“Testing at 48 months might be too young, but time will solve the problem,” he said. “If there are no (BSE) cases in several years, the numbers will tell the truth.” In the meantime, he urged his fellow members of the media to “try to be objective. Politicians may try to convey wrong messages, and media must be free to criticize that.”

Despite continued restrictions on U.S. beef in Japan, Seng noted that USMEF is seeing signs of progress in this key export market for U.S. beef.

“Three years ago, our surveys showed that 73 percent of Japanese consumers said they didn’t want to try U.S. beef,” said Seng. “Now that number is down to 39 percent. We are very pleased with this progress, but it is an indication that we must continue to push to get accurate information on the risk of BSE to Japanese consumers as well as key opinion leaders.”

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