Nine years ago, when BSE first appeared on U.S. soil, I wrote in my column for Prairie Farmer how the timing was really quite horrific for us. My husband recalls sitting on the couch, watching the news when the story broke on Christmas Eve. We were to sell our entire calf crop three weeks later and as he so colorfully recalls, "I thought I was going to throw up." The fear, of course, was the outbreak would spark food safety fears, ravage markets, slam exports and bring the reality of horrible prices all the way back to rural Illinois, where we would then get very little for our calf crop at the Fairview Sale Barn. An entire year's worth of work, down the tubes. Money, gone. Income, gone.
Indeed, over the next several days, "mad cow disease" dominated the airwaves. Cattle markets closed limit down every day – meaning, they dropped as far as they could until an artificial floor stopped them. This is very bad if you are a cattle producer, about to sell your crop. But miracle of all miracles, by the time our calves sold some three weeks later, the markets recovered. We sold calves at pre-scare price levels. Whew.
This is, of course, the scenario that came to mind yesterday as news of the most recent BSE outbreak spread. It feels different this time, though. We seem a little more educated, a little more reasonable.
I have noticed in the past 24-48 hours, the news cycle has been remarkably even and unbiased. News reports have stuck to the facts, quoting USDA officials, epidemiologists and food safety experts. As a journalist, little makes me more frustrated with my reporting brethren than a sensationalized news report (pink slime, anyone?!). And as a farmer, little makes me more disappointed in our society and their reaction to the food supply than a sensationalized news report.
But I digress.
I think there is much we can keep in mind here, including some really heartening facts:
1. A single dairy cow in California was discovered by a renderer to have an "atypical" presentation of BSE on Tuesday, April 24.
2. This atypical presentation does not occur in animals that have been fed bone meal from infected animals. The practice of feeding bone meal was banned in 1997 with the full support of cattle producers, and in 2011 there were only 20 worldwide cases of BSE – a 99% reduction since the peak in 1992 of 37,311 cases. Essentially, the government and the industry took steps to control the disease before it became a real problem in the United States. This is good news.
3. The carcass never entered the food chain. It didn't even come close. The carcass was routinely tested at a renderer and discovered to be positive for BSE. Officials were immediately notified, and the carcass will be further tested and then destroyed.
4. BSE is not transmitted through milk, says USDA Chief Veterinarian John Clifford.
5. The system worked! If there's one thing we can take away from this entire situation, it's that the testing systems we have in place to protect our food supply worked. Amen and hallelujah.
So what does it all mean on our farm tonight? We will continue on with our normal veterinary care, and – I'm not gonna lie - we will rejoice that we don't have calves to sell in three weeks. Livestock marketing experts predict that markets will recover, but we can still be grateful to not have that kind of stress. We've got enough to worry about right now, what with planting a corn crop and all.
But most importantly, we'll have steak tonight. And we'll drink a glass of milk. And we'll give thanks that we are part of the safest and most abundant food supply chain in the world.
You should, too.