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Costly Cow Condition

Kate O’Neill, associate professor of environmental science, policy, and management, has published an article in this September/October issue of California Agriculture reviewing the economic and policy implications of mad cow disease in the U.S.

Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is a deadly brain-wasting disease that can be transmitted to humans who consume infected meat. In the 1990s, an outbreak in Britain led to the slaughter of millions of cattle, long-standing trade embargoes, and a loss of public trust in the British government. BSE subsequently turned up in 23 other countries, but in the U.S. it was long seen as a foreign threat. That changed in December 2003 with the case in Washington State that made “mad cow” a household term.

The American taste for beef proved resilient. But U.S. trading partners—particularly Japan and Mexico—have a very low-risk acceptance threshold, so even a contained incident can have far-ranging consequences. The 2003 case set into motion a series of new BSE protections from the USDA and FDA—policies that remain heavily contested by the beef industry, which must bear the $200 million price tag.

Last summer, a second U.S. case of BSE turned up, this time in Texas, and O’Neill cites experts who predict that more cases are highly likely. “Two dead cows may seem insignificant given the size of the U.S. cattle industry, but they have come to represent some of the potentially serious risks associated with large scale industrialized agriculture," says O’Neill. With uncertainties over consumer confidence and export markets in such an event, she writes, “U.S. regulatory authorities are facing some tough decisions about risk mitigation and communication in the face of high economic stakes.”

-Cyril Manning

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