Jim Cullor, UC Davis veterinary Professor and director of UC Davis Dairy food safety laboratory
Sasha Khokha, Central Valley Bureau Chief for the California Report
Related Story: First Case Of Mad Cow Disease Discovered In Calif.
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, it's Wednesday, April 25th. Our top story on Midday Edition, the discovery of a dairy cow with mad cow disease in California's central valley, it's already had a wide range of reactions. USDA officials say the discovery proves U.S. screening of cattle for mad cow disease works. Meanwhile, south Korea, the fourth largest importer of U.S. beef says it's suspending U.S. imports. In 2004, U.S. beef imports fell 75% after the first time mad cow was found in U.S. cattle. Here to help us sort through the story is my guest, Sasha Khokha, central valley bureau chief for the California report. Sasha, welcome to the program.
KHOKHA: Thanks. Great to be here.
CAVANAUGH: And Jim Color is also joining us, director of UC Davis dairy laboratory. Welcome to the program.
TINSKY: Glad to be here as well.
CAVANAUGH: Sasha, you did a report on this story for the California report today, what do we know about where this cow came from and how the disease was discovered?
KHOKHA: Well, we don't know which dairy it came from, but we do know that it died on the farm, then it arrived with a truckload of other dead cows to a facility south of Fresno where it was going to be transferred to a rendering plant. That's where they take parts of animals and, you know, use them to make products not for human consumption like soap or match-up, chicken feed, glue. But before it even got to that facility, it was selected to be randomly tested for mad cow disease, and its tissues were sent to a lab at UC Davis. And those tests officially came back inconclusive. Then it was sent on for further testing to the USDA lab in Iowa, and yesterday, federal officials confirmed that in fact that cow did exhibit symptoms or did exhibit mad cow disease or bovine sponge form encephalopathy.
CAVANAUGH: Does anyone know how long this took from the time the cow died and tested to the news that came out yesterday?
KHOKHA: I don't know exactly when the animal died. But it was -- it did arrive at the facility on April†18th, and then right away the sample was sent to UC Davis, and by April†19th they thought that there were perhaps some inconclusive tests, and then it was sent to the USDA. So it was a fairly rapid process. It wasn't immediate, but they didn't want to announce any conclusions until they were sure. And that was yesterday.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Sasha, what has come out about how this cow contracted the disease?
KHOKHA: You know, we don't want know much. They're saying that the animal had atypical BS E, which according to officials means they -- didn't get the disease, or the animal didn't get the disease from eating infected cattle feed. And you might remember, back when the outbreak of mad cow disease took place in Britain, that was largely because of contaminated animal feed that contained parts of other cows in it. And after that, the U.S. banned feeding cow meat back to other cows in their feed. Even so, they're saying that this particular strain of BSE E does not look like the cow got the disease from eating other infected cattle feed. And inspectors are going to begin their on-farm investigation and try to find out more. Other cattle infected, where was the cow born? They think it was probably some kind of spontaneous onset of the disease, and they're also saying that the cow didn't exhibit the typical signs of outward, you know, symptoms of the disease. These videos that we saw back in the outbreak in Britain of the cowers looking dazed and confused and ambling around, that cow was not behaving that way. And it died and was already dead at the time that it arrived at the plant and was tested.
CAVANAUGH: Professor Jim Color, let me go to you for more on that. Is it possible for mad cow disease to just show up in a cow spontaneously?
TINSKY: Yes, this particular form, this spontaneous form has been detected in other places around the world, and it's always been a single animal just kind of out of the blue, it shows up and is detected. It hasn't exhibited any type of infectious disease properties spreading like a virus or a bacteria.
CAVANAUGH: That was going to be my next question to you. So is the form that does arise spontaneously, I suppose, through some sort of gene mutation, is that form of the disease contagious at all?
TINSKY: It's not known to be contagious to other animals or to humans at this time.
CAVANAUGH: How is mad cow disease spread to humans when it is spread to humans?
TINSKY: Well, the more classic form that happened in Europe was when the humans consumed meat that was contaminated with brain and spinal cord tissues.
CAVANAUGH: What about the possibility of mad cow disease being spread by dairy products?
TINSKY: It's very rare. In the European outbreak, they looked at that. It was not found in the milk. So milk fed to calves or anything like that. So the chance of it being in dairy products approaches zero.
CAVANAUGH: Approaches zero. You know, sash Ahere in San Diego, we don't have a lot of cattle. So remind us how big an assembly dairy and cattle is in the central valley.
KHOKHA: California is actually the number 1 dairy state in the nation. The folks in Wisconsin don't like us to remind people of that.
[ LAUGHTER ]
KHOKHA: And here in the valley, it's ground zero for dairies. At one point, I know I've done a lot of reporting in Tulerry county, and the officials told me we have more cows than people here. If you're driven up the I-5, you probably passed a number of large dairy farms. It's a big industry in California. And we do produce a lot of milk products. I divide talk with one -- I did talk with one of the state's largest dairy groups just to find out are they panicking, do they think this is going to send their sales plummet something and as we just heard, it's unlikely that mad cow disease can pass through milk, and that message is really getting out there to consumers. So I don't think there's a lot of pan Nick that regard, but as -- as you mentioned, the beef industry is a little bit nervous about this, and they're at least breathing a sigh of relief that Canada and Japan, and some of the other major importers are saying we're not going to stop importing U.S. meat. But south Korea has suspended sales.
CAVANAUGH: Sasha you said this particular cow, before it was tested was on its way to a rendering plant. What would -- where would the parts of that cow have gone? Do we know? If it was not randomly tested?
KHOKHA: This cow was never intended for human consumption. These cows that go to rendering plants are going to places where they make match-up, and chicken feed, and it's typical for dairy cows to die on the farm and then be sent to these kinds of facilities. So officials are reiterating this was never going to be in the food supply. And USDA testing does examine about 40,000 animals a year randomly, so this cow just happened to be the one -- I don't know of how many on that truckload that was actually picked out, but it was a very slim portion that get tested at any given time. And this cow just happened to be selected. Federal officials say, hey, well, that proves that our testing system works, we found this cow. On the other hand, I've talked to some consumer adindicates groups like consumer's union that publishes consumer reports, and they say, well, this actually shows that the government isn't testing enough. If they're testing 40,000 animals a year for mad cow, and we actually slaughter about 34 million cattle a year, that's not a very good ratio.
CAVANAUGH: Do you think enough animals are tested for mad cow in the United States?
TINSKY: Yes, the classical form of the disease is very easy to pick up. Clinically on the farm. If that shows up. And so not only do they look at the cows that go to the rendering plant, but there are veterinarians on these farms. Sometimes on a daily basis. Most frequently on a weekly basis. And so they get a chance to look at the whole herd, do observations on their own, independent of the owner. And so from the classic form, they're able to have that boots on the ground and look. And then the inspection process takes a look at it, and then this process. So it's all risk analysis, and risk management. And mathematicians and statisticians become involved, and they look at it, and by this cowing picked out, not only they'll say sure, but they'll also sit down and look and say -- and ask the question again, are we testing enough? And then they'll go through the numbers and risk analysis process.
CAVANAUGH: Professor Color, there was one thing that Sasha said that got me thinking, and maybe it's a silly thought, but I want to pass it on and see what you think. If this cow that had BSE, this -- this was actually sent off to a rendering plant, and part of it went to chicken feed, would there be any possibility that the chickens who ate that might have gotten BSE E as well, and it could travel down the food chain that way?
TINSKY: Scientific analysis by groups around the world indicate that there's no -- it doesn't jump species. It doesn't go from a cow to a chicken or anything like that. It Santa Fes within species in the animal kingdom.
CAVANAUGH: I see. You spoke with a consumer advocate from consumer reports. If shoppers are still a little concerned about their, you know, the safety of the beef products that they're buying, what they can do to lessen their risk, what did he have to say?
KHOKHA: Consumer reports is not issuing a blanket message saying don't drink milk or don't meat pleat the. But doctor Hanson said said to me, if people are worried, they can make sure their cows are grass-fed. If there is it a chance this BSE E came from feed, if the cows are eating exclusively grass, they're less likely to be infected. Similarly, they request eat organic meat, les likely to ingest food that contains other animal products. And he also said avoid prepackaged ground beef or hotdogs or sausages, products that may include meat from many cows. If you want to have your Hamburger, take your cut of beef to the butcher and have them grind it up from one cut of beef. These are just things that union consumer reports is recommending for people who may be worried. Again, we just don't have any idea how widespread this really is, but we are hearing from federal and state officials that our food supply is safe, and that people don't need to change their habits. So it's really up to the consumer how cautious they want to be.
CAVANAUGH: And professor Color, from what you've said, it sounds as if as things stand right now, you don't think there's a great deal of reason for concern right now?
TINSKY: Yes; is that correct. This is an atypical form that's not known to infect humans, and it doesn't show up in the milk. So I think the system is safe, and all the evaluations, investigations, like Sasha said, are underway. And we'll work through this and evaluate it and come up with any changes that might need to be made. But I think consumers should feel okay about this.
CAVANAUGH: Okay then.