By TIM HEARDEN
American beef industry representatives hope a world body's upgrade of the United States' risk status for bovine spongiform encephalopathy to "negligible" will expand existing markets while removing barriers in places such as China.
The Scientific Commission for the World Organization for Animal Health, or OIE, voted May 29 to change the U.S. classification from "controlled risk" as federal systems for detecting diseases and tracing animals have reassured some of America's trading partners.
The decision will further bolster confidence in U.S. beef in current export markets including Japan, whose move to raise the age limit on U.S. cattle slaughtered for beef from 20 to 30 months has already caused exports to increase dramatically, officials say.
"We think it will be helpful, especially in some of the markets we're already in but have product restrictions related to BSE," said Joe Schuele, spokesman for the U.S. Meat Export Federation. "Some examples of that are, we still have 30-month cattle age restrictions on beef to Mexico and some other Latin American countries and some restrictions on bone-in product in some Asian markets. We've got some of those lifted like in Hong Kong ... We feel this gives us some momentum in easing those."
Schuele said he hopes the upgrade will help get American beef back into Saudi Arabia, which closed a year ago after BSE was found in a dairy cow in central California.
"That's a closure that's not gotten a lot of attention," he said. "The closure of a market like Saudi Arabia doesn't cripple the industry, but for some products it's been a very big blow."
Other markets that remain closed include Australia, which sends a large volume of beef to the United States, and China, where BSE has been one of several issues that negotiators have been trying to work through.
If those issues are resolved, China could be a big export destination for American beef, said Bob McCan, a Texas cow-calf producer and president-elect of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
"It's really somewhere we could make a lot of impact and move a lot of volume," McCan said. "Anytime you're dealing with a nation like China it's going to be difficult ... but certainly having this negligible risk status really helps."
BSE, or mad cow disease, is fatal to cows and can cause a fatal brain disease in people who eat tainted beef. The World Health Organization has said tests show humans cannot be infected by drinking milk from infected animals.
The OIE's upgrade, which followed a thorough assessment of risk in the United States by a committee of experts, essentially means the U.S. is recognized as having the lowest possible risk of BSE in its cattle population, the USMEF explains.
The panel's decision comes nearly 10 years after a BSE outbreak in 2003 closed most export markets immediately. Beef exports plunged from $3.6 billion that year to $809 million in 2004. Since then, markets gradually reopened as the USMEF and other organizations worked to reassure foreign governments about the safety of U.S. beef, and last year's exports totaled $5.5 billion.
The USDA tests about 40,000 cows a year for BSE and recently implemented a rule that animals be certified as disease-free before they can be moved across state lines.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement that the OIE's upgrade "is a significant achievement that has been many years in the making for the United States, American beef producers and businesses, and federal and state partners who work together to maintain a system of interlocking safeguards against BSE that protect our public and animal health."
World Organization for Animal Health: http://www.oie.int