Iowa State University experts can provide local reaction to mad cow disease

December 23rd, 2003

The first-ever suspected case of mad cow disease in the U.S. is being investigated in Washington state, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced Dec. 23.

A Holstein cow was reportedly tested Dec. 9 when the animal was presented at a slaughter facility in Washington state. The animal was a "downer," unable to walk. Veneman said the cow tested "presumptively positive" for mad cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

The sample was further tested at a United States Department of Agriculture lab located in Ames, Iowa, not affiliated with Iowa State University.

Mad cow disease has never before been found in the United States. It was discovered in England in 1986 and devastated the British cattle industry in the 1990s. On May 20, Canada confirmed one case of mad cow disease. The disease has been widespread in Europe and has been linked to more than 130 human deaths.

A rare human disease, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, has been linked to consuming BSE diseased meat, specifically brain and spinal cord tissue. But Veneman emphasized the risk to human health is "extremely low." It is not known whether any of the meat from the Washington cow has entered the U.S. food supply.

"That is what we are trying to identify at this point," Veneman said in a news conference. "Our current understanding, and it's very preliminary, is that the product did go to further processing plants. However, it is important to remember that muscle cuts of meat have almost no risk of transmitting BSE."

Veneman said she still planned to serve beef for her Christmas dinner, and an Iowa State University veterinarian said he will do the same.

"I just bought a big beef roast, which we are going to eat Christmas Day," said Nolan Hartwig, ISU veterinary diagnostic and production animal medicine professor and Extension veterinarian. "I think we can go ahead and eat beef without any significant concern at all. It's our view and judgment that the risk here is very small, close to zero."

Hartwig says the chances of mad cow disease in Iowa, or even elsewhere in the U.S., are remote.

"There may be occasional spontaneous cases in the cattle population — about 100 million head in the U.S. We just don't know. But a big firewall we have to stop mad cow disease in the U.S. is the Food and Drug Administration rule that went into effect in 1997: that is, we don't allow animal protein and animal byproducts to be fed back to ruminant animals. Tankage and meat scraps, byproducts of the slaughter industry, are cooked at a high temperature and may be fed to poultry and swine, but we can't feed them to cattle and sheep," Hartwig said.

John Lawrence, ISU livestock economist, associate professor and director of the Iowa Beef Center, has two concerns — the $3.4 billion U.S. exports market and near-term, farm-level issues.

"As far as exports are concerned, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the USDA are going to be talking with our trading partners about continuing the exports of beef from low-risk animals — those less than 30 months of age. Those discussions will be ongoing," Lawrence said. "I would expect some disruption of exports. The question is how long, and at this point, we simply do not know. The U.S. exports 10 percent of its beef; we also import about 10 percent of our beef. Longer-term, if the exports were to remain closed, we would probably begin to import less beef and move back to an equilibrium."

In the near term, Lawrence advises producers to sit tight. "This close to the holidays, the markets were going to be thinly traded anyway. The Chicago Mercantile Exchange will close at noon tomorrow as planned. The Friday following Christmas also will be thinly traded, so the markets will be quite volatile. Add to that this uncertainty, and I think we'll see people being very cautious. Bids will be very conservative. My recommendation to producers is that unless they can get the price they're happy with, or expecting, to be a little patient until the shock wears off."


Note to editors:

Nolan Hartwig is available for comment at (515) 294-0711 or Hartwig can speak on issues related to food safety, how mad cow disease is spread, how it is controlled, and regulatory issues.

John Lawrence can comment on livestock economics and beef marketing. Lawrence can be reached at (515) 294-6290 or


Nolan Hartwig, Veterinary Diagnostic and Production Animal Medicine, (515) 294-0711

John Lawrence, Iowa Beef Center, (515) 294-6290