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10 Years After BSE, Little Change in Tracking

December 23, 2013

By ROSS COURTNEY, Yakima Herald-Republic

A walking tour of Bill Wavrin's dairy takes few steps.

His house and office sit on a hill above the milking parlor, birthing pen and calf sheds. Beyond, his cows sprawl in groups of 15 or 20 as the topography recedes into the hazy distance. Almost every animal in the herd of 4,000 can be seen from the Sunny Dene Ranch driveway.

But 10 years ago Monday, it took just one cow to send shock waves through the cattle industry of the United States, home to some 100 million cattle, slam the door on billions of dollars in exports and scare a lot of beef eaters.

Watch the AgDay report, featuring Pro Farmer analysis:

That's when Wavrin learned that a single Holstein from his dairy was the first in the United States to test positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow, the terrorizing cattle brain-wasting disease that had caused illness and death, economic catastrophes and the slaughter of millions of cattle overseas.

"Holy crap," Wavrin recalled saying to himself. "We will not survive this."

But he did. Most everybody did.

In hindsight, Wavrin's cow appears in U.S. history as a brief scare, certainly not the disaster the disease caused in the late 1980s in the United Kingdom, where hundreds of people fell ill and many died after eating contaminated meat. Over the years, 4.5 million cattle were slaughtered to contain the spread.

In America, government officials and consumer advocates agree the nation's food safety system functioned as expected thanks largely to precautions taken since the late 1990s to keep the disease-causing prion, a misshapen protein in the infected animal's central nervous system, out of cattle feed and hence the beef supply.

But in the end, regulators relied on the odds that a large-scale disaster would be extremely unlikely. Safeguards have tightened some since then, but the cattle industry has successfully resisted a national identification system and testing of all cattle, some of the measures used by other nations today. Critics say not enough has changed.

"They're baby steps and they're not enough," said Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist of the watchdog organization Consumers Union.

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