On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that its routine surveillance had discovered a dairy cow in California with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). The extremely rare illness could be transmitted to humans through consumption of beef. The infected cow was not used for its meat but was held for destruction. On Wednesday, several large Korean supermarket chains announced that they would ban U.S. beef due to the BSE infection. Indonesia’s government followed on Thursday by also banning some imports of American beef.
Bovine spongiform encephalopathy is extremely rare in cattle. Only three cases of BSE had been seen in the United States since 2003, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). In North America, 19 cases in total have been seen. All but one case were in cattle born in Canada. The illness is a progressive and fatal neurological illness. The illness is considered to be caused by a structure called a prion. Several illnesses linked to prions as the infectious agent are known to occur in humans.
BSE came into prominence in 1986 when it was discovered in the United Kingdom. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that in the next 16 years more than 131,000 cases of BSE were found in the U.K. WHO reports that a prion illness now called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) was first reported in the U.K. in 1996.
Studies suggested a connection between the illness and the consumption of meat from BSE infected cattle. Through 2011, 129 cases of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease have been reported, with just one in the United States. In 1997, the Food and Drug Administration in the United States banned the inclusion of most mammalian protein in cattle feed and other ruminants.
vCJD has been cited in several bans on the importation of U.S. beef overseas. The current case in California has resulted in several bans. On Wednesday, two of the largest supermarket chains in South Korea banned imported beef from the United States, according to AP. One reversed its decision after the government announced stiffer inspections for imported beef. Reuters reports that, on Thursday, the Indonesian government announced a ban on some U.S. beef and beef products. Indonesia has announced a drive towards self-sufficiency in beef production.
Both Taiwan and China are engaged in trade talks with the United States. Beef imports are one of the issues on the table. AP reports that both nations may reconsider their positions based upon this latest BSE case.