The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services recently reported the status of steps designed to further prevent bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in U.S. cattle, including doubling the number of BSE tests the government will conduct this fiscal year compared to the previous year.

USDA, HHS, as well as other federal and state agencies, are working together to continue strengthening protection systems to prevent BSE from entering the country.

USDA and HHS are reporting the status of the action steps first outlined Nov. 30, 2001. following the release of the landmark risk analysis on BSE conducted by Harvard University. The report showed that the risk of BSE occurring in the United States is extremely low.

The report showed that early protection systems put into place by USDA and HHS have been largely responsible for keeping BSE out of the United States and would prevent it from spreading if it ever did enter the country.

Even so, USDA Secretary Ann M. Veneman and HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson last year outlined a series of actions to continue strengthening programs to reduce the risk even further.

“We will remain vigilant and are committed to taking the appropriate steps to keep BSE out of the United States,” said Veneman. “In addition to being on track to double our testing this year, we are moving forward on a series of action items to strengthen our prevention programs.”

HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson added, “We continue to take strong actions and keep our vigilance high to prevent this disease from entering this country. If we ever did face a situation, we want to ensure that strong systems are in place to prevent its potential spread to the animal or human food chain.”

The three-year Harvard study is the most comprehensive U.S. study of BSE and its potential risk factors. It is the second comprehensive independent analysis conducted in recent years examining prevention measures being taken in the United States related to BSE.

The series of recent actions by federal agencies include:

  • A peer review of the Harvard study by outside experts is underway by a team of independent scientists to determine the accuracy of the approaches and assumptions of the model.

  • USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is on track to double testing for BSE in cattle this year. The target for fiscal 2002 is 12,500 compared to approximately 5,200 sampled in 2001. The increase includes testing deceased cattle from farms.

  • The fiscal 2003 USDA budget includes record-level funding for pest and disease prevention and food safety programs, including $8 million for increased BSE surveillance and laboratory activities by APHIS, with $3 million going directly to the states to help collect an increased number of samples.

  • An additional $2 million is requested for USDA's Agricultural Research Service to further study BSE.

  • USDA is on track to increase the number of inspectors at ports of entry with its 2003 budget, proposing to bring staffing levels to more than 4,000, up from 2500 personnel at the beginning of fiscal 2001.

  • The Defense Appropriations Supplemental Act, approved by the president in January, provides $328 million for increased homeland security protections.

These resources will strengthen the coordination and planning of federal programs by increasing overseas inspection capabilities, provide funding to integrate computer technologies among federal agencies, fund critical laboratory renovations to improve testing capabilities and invest in new detection systems, such as x-ray equipment, among other priorities.

USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) published for comment a current thinking paper in the Jan. 17, 2002 Federal Register outlining additional regulatory actions it may take to further reduce the potential risk of BSE and to ensure that potentially infectious materials does not enter the U.S. food supply.