Indonesia finds BSE case hard to stomach

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Indonesia has suspended several types of beef imports from the United States after a confirmed case of mad cow disease was found in a dairy cow in the US State of California.

As a result, Indonesia's Deputy Agriculture Minister, Rusman Heriawan, halted imports of bone meal, innards and boned meat from the US. However, Mr Heriawan said boneless meat would still be allowed to be imported based on further developments.

Speculation of the incident creating opportunities for increased imports of Australian beef into Indonesia is still too early to determine, according to Meat and Livestock Australia economist Tim McRae.

"Given only imports of bone meal, innards and bone-in meat have been put on hold, I would expect new orders from Australia would be minimal, especially given the quota on boxed beef," he said.

"Overall, price will be the determining factor as to whether Indonesia can attract any additional Australian product."

The Jakarta Globe reported that US beef was used mainly by hotels and high-end restaurants in Indonesia and accounted for only 0.6 per cent of total US exports.

The major export markets for US beef - Mexico, Canada and Japan - intend to continue to import US beef, after authorities told importers there was no danger of tainted beef.

In South Korea, the fourth largest importer of US beef, the second and third-largest retailers immediately pulled US beef from their stores.

One of those retailers has resumed imports after being assured by US authorities that their concern was unfounded.

China imposed a ban on US beef in 2003 after the first case of mad cow was found in a Canadian-born cow in the US State of Washington.

US trade representative Ron Kirk called on Indonesia to quickly lift the suspension.

He said it was expected Indonesia would re-open its market because the infected cow had not entered the food system and that US beef was safe.

Last year Indonesia imported 100,000 tonnes of beef from around the world, of which 18,000 tonnes came from the US.

Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), decimated cattle herds in the United Kingdom in the 1980s and 1990s and caused more than 150 deaths in humans from a gruesome and lethal brain disease called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD).

A British inquiry into BSE concluded that the epizootic was caused by cattle, which were normally herbivores, being fed the remains of other cattle in the form of meat and bone meal, which caused the infectious agent to spread.

The disease was found to harbour in cattle that were routinely fed protein supplements, including cow spinal columns and brain tissue.

The use of meat and bone meal as a protein supplement in cattle feed was widespread in Europe before 1987.

The first reported case of BSE in North America was in December 1993 in Alberta, Canada. There have been three confirmed cases of BSE in the US - in a Canada-born cow in 2003 in Washington, in 2005 in Texas and in 2006 in Alabama.

In the latest case, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) detected the disease in a random sample on April 24 through the ongoing BSE surveillance program.

The animal, which showed no signs of the disease, was selected for testing when it arrived to a transfer facility with other dead cows on April 18.

The samples went to the food safety lab at the University of California, Davis.

By April 19, markers indicated the cow could have BSE.

When federal agriculture officials announced the findings, USDA chief veterinarian John Clifford said the animal had atypical BSE, which meant it did not get the disease from eating infected cattle feed.

"At no time did the animal present a risk to the food and milk supply, or to human health," Dr Clifford said. "Scientific evidence shows that the safeguards we and many countries have in place against BSE are highly effective."

He said that last year, only 29 cases of BSE were detected worldwide.

Since September 2009, 11 countries have been assessed as 'negligible risk', including Argentina, Australia, Chile, Finland, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, Paraguay, Singapore, Sweden and Uruguay.

It is still unknown whether the US animal died of the disease and if other cattle in the herd are similarly infected.

New York State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory director Bruce Akey said it was most likely just a random mutation that could happen every once in a long while in an animal.

"Experts estimate such random mutations occur in about one in a million animals," Mr Akey said.

"Once a cow has BSE, whether of the classical type or the atypical type, research has shown that it can pass that down to its offspring."

US author John Robbins said the key to solving the case at hand was finding where and when the cow was born.

But he said tracking how this dairy cow came to be infected with BSE was not simple, because the US was one of the only beef-producing countries in the world that did not have a mandatory identification system that tracked animals from birth to the slaughterhouse.

On the other hand, US consumer advocacy Sarah Klein said 3000 Americans died every year from preventable food-borne illnesses that were not linked to BSE.

"Things like E. coli, salmonella, that's where we should be focusing our attention, outrage and policy," she said.

BSE has never been recorded in Australia.

On March 1, 2010, new requirements came into effect for countries wanting to export beef and beef products to Australia.

Under the new requirements, certain beef and beef products may be imported from countries that can show they have appropriately monitored controls in place to ensure exports of beef and beef products to Australia are derived from BSE-free animals.

A spokesman for the Australian Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry said Australia did not import beef or beef products for human consumption from cattle of US origin.

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