The U.S. cattle herd is free of the so-called "mad-cow" disease that has panicked Europeans and sent meat sales plunging in some European nations, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA).

The cattle and beef trade organization credits U.S. prevention of the disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), to "more than 10 years of aggressive, coordinated government and industry efforts."

The U.S. system first relied on a voluntary ban on adding bone and meat to animal feeds in 1996, but then in 1997 added a mandatory ban on bone, meat and other mammalian protein from known carriers of BSE, the association reported.

Both ingredients are suspected of spreading the brain-degenerative disease in cattle and some other ruminant animals in other parts of the world. BSE has also been linked to a variant of the disease in humans in Europe. Like its bovine counterpart, no confirmed cases of the disease variant have been reported in the United States, the NCBA said. A similar rare disease has been recorded in the states, but not linked to BSE in cattle or other ruminant animals.

"While the European Union suffers through crippling consumer concerns and behind-the-curve government efforts to deal with the current European mad cow disease scare, no cases of BSE have been found in the United States," said NCBA chief executive Charles Schroeder. "And we believe our continued prevention efforts resulted in the October scientific report by the U.S.-based Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) that found a very low risk for U.S. occurrence of BSE."

Citing science-based systems, Schroeder said the United States began an aggressive BSE-surveillance program in May 1990. The surveillance effort involves several government agencies and more than 250 federal and state regulatory veterinarians who have been trained to diagnose foreign animal diseases, including BSE, he said.

"An example of swift response and cooperation was the U.S. industry's reaction to information that feed which included meat and bone meal might have caused the spread of BSE in England," Schroeder said.

"Within a couple of weeks following the March 20, 1996, British announcement that BSE might be related to a human disease, the U.S. cattle industry implemented a voluntary ban on use of these supplements in cattle feed." Schroeder said the U.S. cattle industry supported, in July 1989, the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) move to ban imports of ruminant animals from countries with confirmed cases of BSE. In November 1989, an additional ban was placed on most ruminant products from those countries, he said.

The European Union is only now beginning to impose wide scale bans on use of animal-derived protein supplements in cattle feed, Schroeder said. But he said the United States took that step more than three years ago, in June 1997, when the Food and Drug Administration issued a regulation banning the use of bone, meat and most other mammalian protein in ruminant feeds.

Excluded from the ban are horse and swine bone and protein because those species have not been carriers of BSE, the association said.

Then in December 1997, Schroeder said, the USDA and its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service banned imports of all live ruminants and most ruminant products from all European countries until risk factors associated with BSE were more fully examined.

Industry BSE-prevention efforts, he said, are funded with a portion the national beef checkoff, a $1-per-head fee charged each time a cow, bull, heifer, steer, yearling or calf is sold.

By Worth Wren, staff writer at storealliance.com