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Cross County: One mad cow in the minefield of life

By John Oncken (Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2004 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- We the people are a strange lot.

We smoke cigarettes bought in a package bearing a health warning on every pack.

We travel 80 miles an hour in 55 mile per hour speed zones, sometimes while talking on a cell phone or eating.

We take illegal drugs bought from non-accredited sellers for high prices that can put us in near-death situations or result in death itself.

We cross streets in front of 3,000-pound cars that will run us over without even slowing down.

We get up in the morning and walk down dangerous stairways.

Each day danger lurks at every step: a slippery sidewalk, a squishy tomato on the supermarket floor, meeting people with deadly diseases in public places, plugging a computer into an overloaded outlet.

Life can be dangerous, and we often feel fortunate to survive one potential danger or another.

So why is the fact that one cow, apparently brought from Canada some three years ago that has tested positive for a rare disease, created such discussion? It's talk about a disease that over the course of 17 years may have caused the death of 143 people worldwide.

Certainly the talk is not from the fear that the disease known as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow will kill us dead tonight, tomorrow or next week. Maybe it's because an offspring of that malady, called variant Creutzfelt-Jakob disease (CJD), could cause problems a dozen years from now.

More probably we're concerned because we fear the unknown.

I first made note of BSE in the early 1990s when Great Britain was going through its lengthy battle with the disease, first diagnosed in 1986. That's when I talked with Dr. R.F. "Dick" Marsh at his office in the Animal Health and Biomedical Sciences Department at UW-Madison.

Marsh was working on a "wasting" disease that had killed mink in central Wisconsin. He was espousing an unpopular theory that the disease was caused by something called a prion that came by way of animal feed. By 1997, as a result of his and other research, the livestock industry placed a ban on feeding animal meat and bone meal byproducts to other animals.

As in many medical science issues - human and animal - answers to rare but feared diseases are often slow in coming. In spite of our immediate desire to know about BSE, scientists can't come up with instant answers, even though they try their utmost.

What do farmers think about BSE? Of course they're very concerned. And after all, they raise all the beef in the world and to make money they must sell their product. Most important, farmers eat the meat they produce!

Basically there are two types of beef farmers.

There are the beef ranchers/farmers, popularly represented as those with the white-face Herefords and Black Angus. Their life is devoted to producing the steaks and roasts we so love.

Today you find beef animals (steers and bulls) of many colors as the result of cross-breeding and the importation of new breeds in the 1970s.

Black and white Holstein beef cattle also make up a portion of our beef supply. They are the result of bull calves coming from dairy herds and fattened as steers. It should be noted that Holstein beef is as delicious as that from beef breeds and Holsteins are fast, economical gainers.

There also are the dairy producers who primarily milk cows. After a cow's milking life ends - most likely from low production or breeding problems, it is marketed for use in beef products such as hamburger.

Of the 35 million beef animals marketed each year in the U.S., the majority (93.6 percent) comes from the beef herds. A small amount (6.4 percent) comes from the dairy and beef cow/bull segment.

The BSE cow that was found in the Washington dairy herd apparently came from Canada. Some folks seem surprised at that. They shouldn't be. Canada has been a source of dairy animals for a long time. And this cow seems to have come from a 70-cow herd that had been sold en masse.

It's not unusual for dairy farmers to sell their entire herd to one buyer. It saves on auction costs, which require preparing the cows, putting up a tent, hauling the animals (sometimes a long distance) and paying a commission to an auctioneer and sales force.

The news of the BSE cow in Washington has brought the beef futures down in price at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. As most futures traders will acknowledge, such markets move on emotions.

Judd Aiken, professor at the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine's Animal Health and Biomedical Sciences Department, says "It's too early to panic."

He points out that unlike Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), there is no evidence that BSE can spread from cow to cow. He also points out that the disease seems to be feed based and that Great Britain may have had a different type of feed using sheep byproducts that could have been at the base of the English outbreak.

It should be recognized that the BSE problem in Great Britain peaked in 1993 and has rapidly decreased since. So have the cases of variant CJD.

One of the scariest aspects of the whole BSE discussion is seeing that cow staggering around on the TV news. I hope folks understand that the film dates back some 12-15 years. Newspeople drag it out to add impact to their stories. It can be confusing because it sometimes appears to be the Washington cow. It's not.

Who is a BSE expert? Certainly not the people offering opinions on talk shows and in news stories. Being an expert or authority should at least involve more than providing an opinion or writing a book.

It's too early to tell the impact on dairy farmers although Jefferson auctioneer Bill Stade reports outstanding prices at two recent dairy sales (Saturday and Monday).

Maybe one should worry more about driving to the supermarket than about eating beef. Or riding a bicycle 20 miles as I did Sunday. Just consider the odds.

John Oncken operates Oncken Communications, his Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 222-0624, fax 222-7774, or e-mail jfodairy@chorus.net