The big scare last Christmas, as it has been on all Christmases since September 11, was supposed to be terrorism. Instead, it turned out to be a lone Holstein cow from the state of Washington.
In between holiday carols on the radio, news bulletin after breathless news bulletin updated listeners on the nation's first presumptive case for Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), as well as the ensuing traceback investigation undertaken by USDA authorities, who found themselves poking around a cattle farm in Mattawa, Wash., before they finally set their sights on Calmar, Alberta, where the so-called "index cow" originated.
It was quick work by USDA. And quick policy too. On December 30, just a week after Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman broke the news of the infected cow, she followed up with a lengthy list of "additional protection measures" USDA planned to undertake in order to prevent further outbreaks of BSE in the U.S. (see sidebar). A little more than a week later, Veneman announced that USDA would begin accepting license applications for BSE tests.
Throughout the long month of January, USDA also continued to issue daily updates on its efforts to locate remaining cattle from the source herd in Calmar, an investigation that led to the examination and identification of more than 75,000 animals in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, and to the depopulation of 255 of them, all of which tested negative for BSE.
A meat inspector on January 5 checks cattle carcasses hanging in a Wichita, Kansas, slaughterhouse just days after mad cow was discovered in the U.S.
On February 9, USDA issued its "final" such update and the case, as they say, was closed.
Or was it? USDA has since acknowledged that it located only 24 of the 80 cattle that entered the U.S. with the infected cow. Nor did the agency fare much better with the cow's progeny; in January, authorities destroyed 450 bull calves in Washington state because they could not determine which one was the infected cow's offspring.
So some unfinished business remains, not the least of which is a USDA mandate that the beef industry fast track plans for a national identification system to track cattle from birth to slaughter and beyond. The industry could end up adopting a system similar to Canada's Cattle Identification Program, which relied upon Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) to trace the infected cow to Calmar. For the uninitiated, RFID uses electromagnetic or electrostatic coupling in the RF portion of the electromagnetic spectrum to transmit signals. Hence, a typical RFID system consists of an antenna and transceiver, which read the radio frequency and transfer information to a processing device, and a transponder, or tag, which is an integrated circuit containing the RF circuitry and information to be transmitted.
If that sounds like a mouthful, imagine implementing RFID or a similar technology among the 95 million dairy and beef cattle grazing in U.S. pastures. A number of systems suppliers can imagine it, though it remains to be seen how quickly the industry responds with a definitive plan. For her part, Veneman told the Senate Agriculture Committee in January that USDA planned to "expedite" implementation of a national identification program that would enable the agency to trace any animal to any location in the U.S. within 48 hours. However, some weeks later she backpedaled when she acknowledged, "I don't have a timeline."
One reason is that the U.S. Animal Identification Plan (USAIP), a proposed RFID-based system endorsed by USDA, needs to be modified to account for the peculiarities of mad cow disease, which can lie dormant in cattle for years. In the meantime, a consortium of some 70 industry groups, including the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the Holstein Association USA, continues to press forward with the program.
The Holstein Association, which proposed 1999's National Farm Animal Identification and Records (FAIR) system, upon which USAIP is purportedly based, currently is storing data for two pilot projects and has pledged to manage the data for a national system, once it is in place. Moreover, the consortium expects to have phase one of USAIP -- Premises ID -- in place by this July. Phase one provisions require that standardized premise identification numbers be established for all production operations, markets, assembly points, exhibitions and processing plants. Planners meanwhile are working toward a target date of July 2005 to have systems ready so producers can label their animals with national ID numbers. Meanwhile, bills mandating a national animal identification system were in both houses of Congress at press time.
"A national identification program is critical not only to food safety, but to source verification of our meat products," says Steve Van Lannen, general manager with Packerland Packing, the largest beef company east of the Mississippi River. "We installed National FAIR eartag readers in our facilities three years ago."
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman: USDA and FDA have teamed to tighten several sets of regulations in response to the mad cow discovery.
There's probably no arguing that traceability is a concept whose time has come, and not simply for cattle producers, or for processors who incorporate beef into their products. As mandated by the federal Bioterrorism Act, the FDA indicated last year it was proceeding with a Food Source Identification and Tracking System so that FDA officials not only will be able pinpoint where food has been, but where it is going as it travels from ports, factories or distributors within the U.S. More recently, the National Pork Producers Council indicated that while the swine industry has had mandatory identification requirements in place since 1988, the program is no substitute for a "coordinated across-species mandatory identification system." At stake, the Council continued, is no less than "the loss of international markets" in the event of a foodborne illness or criminal food contamination.
Fruits and vegetables too
The problem extends fruits and vegetables, as evidenced by the hepatitis outbreak at Chi-Chi's restaurants last year, which claimed three lives and infected more than 600 before the virus was traced to green onions imported from Mexico. Needless to say, many larger restaurants and food retailers have begun to demand a verifiable trace-back system because of potentially overwhelming liability issues. ConAgra, for instance, demands that the feed yards selling them cattle certify that those cattle have never been fed ruminant feed, while McDonald's now pays a higher price for beef that can be traced back to its original birth herd.
However, most parties involved agree that some logistical and financial hurdles need to be cleared before a nationwide system can be put in place. Even as the USAIP model moves forward, Veneman admits that it's unclear whether there should be a single system organized and funded by the government, or whether USDA simply should set standards that ranchers and the meat industry can apply in a variety of ways. It's also unclear what specific food types would be covered under USAIP. In a recent executive summary of its activities, a USAIP steering committee indicated support for the following species and/or industries: bison, beef cattle, dairy cattle, sheep, goats, camelids (alpacas and llamas), horses, cervids (deer and elk), poultry (eight species, including game birds), and aquaculture (eight species).
There is also the question of whether one size will fit all. "It's got to work for all producers," Scott Stuart, chief executive officer with the National Livestock Producers Association, recently told MSNBC. "There are roughly 100 million head of cattle in the country, and the average herd size is 30 head. That means there a lot of small guys and some big guys."
And a lot of small budgets and some big budgets. RFID tags currently cost about $3 each, although that price is predicted to fall below below $1 in a national rollout. The overall price looks steep when multiplied by 95 million cattle in the U.S., and the information technology costs behind each could be substantially more. The Holstein Associates estimates the total cost of implementing a nationwide, full-scale RFID program for cattle alone to be $600 million over six years.
Vendors fill the void
While the National FAIR program presumably would provide the national database and model, product vendors are rushing to fill in individual company implementations.
* Syscan International of Quebec (www.syscan.com) in mid-2002 installed an RFID-based tracking system in a slaughterhouse of Les Salaisons Brochu, one of Canada's leading meat companies. In addition to RFID tags on the cattle, Syscan's transponders are located throughout the plant and even are embedded in the metal meat hooks to communicate with the computerized tracking system. At the end of the process, carcass information is included in bar codes for final packing.
* Global Technology Resources, Starkville, Miss., (www.gtechresources.com) combines RFID technology and a web-based global positioning system to track and manage food safety data in real time. "We can pinpoint where contaminants entered the supply chain and isolate the problem within 10 minutes," says President Paul Cheek.
* Agilisys, (www.agilisys.com), an Atlanta manufacturing software company, has a meat industry-inspired system that track meat products and lots throughout the manufacturing process. In the event of a recall, Agilisys solutions help food processors with finite tracking of lot numbers traceable historical recipe data.
In general, system capabilities vary from vendor to vendor. Some systems are designed for use in the rugged "dissassembly" environment of meat and poultry plants, while others are more R&D-oriented and designed to meet the R&D, in-process testing and regulatory requirements of dairy, food and beverage processors, according to Schaumburg, Ill.-based vendor Intentia.
Some laboratory information management systems (LIMS) and enterprise quality management (EQM) systems may be of particular benefit to non-meat manufacturers and processors. With LIMs, for instance, Intentia notes that sample information generated by chromatographs and other analytical instruments can be fed into the PC or networks of PCs, then sorted and organized to provide useful reports about ingredients and/or manufacturing processes. Moreover, advanced LIMs offer extensive query and reporting capabilitis, data acquisition and data reduction functionality; many are also Web-enabled and are closely connected to the processes that the lab supports, particularly manufacturing, processing and R&D.
Clearly, a myriad of options are available to food industry members. It's also clear that the sooner traceback systems become a fact of life in the U.S. the better. As this story went to press, a House Committee was challenging USDA's contention that the infected Holstein slaughtered in December was lame -- a significant point, since USDA targets "downer" cattle for testing of mad cow, and because evidence to the contrary suggests that what the industry sees isn't always what it gets.
Processing regulations tightened
The USDA and FDA have teamed to tighten several sets of regulations in response to the mad cow discovery. Among steps taken by the USDA:
* No longer marking BSE-tested cattle as passing inspection until confirmation is received that they have tested negative for the disease.
* Prohibiting use of the skull, brain, trigeminal ganglia, eyes, vertebral column, spinal cord and dorsal root ganglia of cattle 30 months of age or older and the small intestine and tonsils of all cattle in the human food supply.
* Expanding the ban on use of high-pressure advanced meat recovery (AMR) methods to remove spinal cord tissue to also include nerve cell clusters attached to the spinal cord, and banning the use of AMR to separate meat from skulls or spinal columns of any cattle 30 months or older.
* Prohibited air-injection stunning of cattle in the slaughter process to ensure portions of the brain aren't dislocated into muscle tissue that may be used as meat.
* Immediately banning all non-ambulatory or "downer" cattle from the food supply.
Consumer reaction muted
While mad cow disease created a panic as it swept across Europe and Japan in the 1990s and 2000, reaction in the U.S. and Canada has turned out to be largely a non-event.
In fact, Canadians have actually increased consumption of beef since the discovery of a single Angus cow infected with the disease in May. Restaurant sales of steak and other high-end cuts rose 5 to 10 percent last summer, and Canadians had 198 home meals with beef last year, up 2 percent from 2003, according to market research firm NPD Canada. One reason is that prices fell once Canada couldn't export its beef.
Not surprisingly, NPD's U.S. unit found that concerns about mad cow disease reached an all-time high the week after the infected cow was discovered. Nonetheless, those concerns aren't likely to have much impact on domestic consumption. Indeed, some 74 percent of U.S. consumers indicated they planned to eat the same amount or more beef the week after the scare, and the same proportion said they believed the food they buy is safe.
Meanwhile, a Harris Interactive poll conducted in January found that only 21 percent of U.S. respondents said the mad cow discovery would affect where or what they eat, with about three quarters of them indicating they would eat less beef.
And even they may have changed their minds, according to Tyson Foods Chairman and CEO John Tyson, who in a late-January conference call with analysts said that "actual demand for beef stayed strong [before and after the mad cow discovery]The consumer has basically said this is a non-event."
Harry Balzer, vice president of NPD Group, also takes consumer concern about mad cow with a grain of salt. "Americans' concerns don't necessarily translate into a change in behavior," he said, "but it's clearly on our radar screen again. As long as the numbers of mad cow cases remain small, it will have a minimal impact on our eating habits. If the numbers of mad cow cases in the U.S. increase, we will be looking more at what happened in Europe than what happened in Canada."
"The consumer reaction in the U.S. has been pretty low key," said Kiran Kernellu, spokeswoman for the National Meat Association, Oakland, Calif. "If you have a discovery of a second infected cow or more, it could be a different story. But we're hoping that won't happen, and the USDA and FDA have taken steps to ensure it doesn't."
-Jack Neff, Business Editor