In a scary piece of news, it has come to light this past week that Brazil may have experienced a case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), a disease more commonly known as “mad cow” disease. While the animal became ill and died in December of 2010, it was not until April of 2011 that the first testing was done, and not until last week that the final tests were complete. This final set of testing, which was carried out at a laboratory in the UK, indicated the presence of the proteins that cause BSE.
There are several reasons why this announcement is troubling. The first is the length of time that it took to confirm the presence of the disease. Between the cow’s onset of symptoms in 2010 and the confirmation of its illness last week, almost two years passed. During these two years, Brazil was not subject to the stringent safety checks that impact nations where there has been a confirmed case of BSE.
Additionally, this event has brought further attention to an important problem plaguing the meat safety system of this country, which is set up with several control points to ensure safe product. First, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) does a thorough review to ensure that foreign nations have food safety systems that are “equivalent” to ours before those countries are ever allowed to send meat here. Secondly, FSIS does routine audits of those foreign systems to ensure equivalency is being maintained. Finally, FSIS does pathogen testing of meat entering the US to ensure that it is safe. This system is designed to guarantee a safe supply of foreign meat for US consumers.
Unfortunately, as has been reported recently, the number of foreign inspections being carried out by FSIS has decreased dramatically over the last several years, from an average of 26.4 per year from 2001 to 2008 to an average of 9.8 between 2009 and 2012.
In a time of fiscal austerity and the race to save money, it can be tempting for federal agencies to cut expensive, time intensive programs like inspection. However, as the ongoing rash of foodborne illness outbreaks illustrates, we cannot be too vigilant when it comes to our food supply.