News that Brazil has indefinitely suspended beef exports to China over the weekend due to the identification of two cases of mad cow has raised concerns among some consumers and created uncertainty about the price of the product.
The Ministry of Agriculture quickly issued a note saying that the cases identified in slaughterhouses in Belo Horizonte and Nova Canaã do Norte (MT) do not pose a risk to human or animal health.
“The measure, which will take effect from this Saturday (09/04), will take place until the Chinese authorities conclude the evaluation of the information already passed on about the cases.”
The slaughterhouse in Belo Horizonte was closed, according to the Minas Gerais Agricultural Institute (IMA).
According to the note, atypical cases like this are not considered serious and Brazil remains a country with “insignificant risk for the disease, not justifying any impact on the trade of animals and their products and by-products”
The suspension of exports to China was due to the strict sanitary protocol in force between the two countries — and the Brazilian government hopes that in the next few days exports can be normalized.
For many people, mad cow disease brings haunting memories of the 1980s and 1990s, when an outbreak in the UK led to the slaughter of four million heads of cattle and dozens of deaths among people who had eaten contaminated meat — with boycotts and billionaire losses to British producers.
So how are these cases in Brazil different from what happened in the UK? This is because the variant of the disease identified in Brazil is considered less dangerous than the one that spread 30 years ago. Still, the variant is closely monitored by industry and health authorities.
Check out some questions and answers about new cases in Brazil.
What is Mad Cow Disease?
Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) – the official name of the disease – is a degenerative disease that affects the nervous system of cattle. It is popularly known as mad cow disease because the symptoms include aggression and lack of coordination. The disease is also known as BSE, after its English name (bovine spongiform encephalopathy). It is caused by a type of protein called a prion and is usually fatal to animals.
The human version of the most common disease today is known as New Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD) and is also lethal. It is linked to the consumption of contaminated meat. The disease progressively attacks the brain, but it can lie dormant for decades.
The most common symptoms are memory loss, mobility and visual difficulties, tiredness and rapid weight loss.
Since 1995, when it was identified, the vJCD has killed 178 people.
One in every 2,000 people in the UK is believed to have the disease. However, relatively few people who become infected develop symptoms.
Why would the case in Brazil be less serious?
This is because the variant of the disease identified in Brazil does not represent a risk to public health, according to health authorities.
Mad cow disease can manifest itself in two forms—the classic and the atypical variant.
The classic one occurs in cattle after ingestion of feed contaminated with prions, while the atypical one can appear spontaneously in all cattle populations. It is believed that this could have happened now in Belo Horizonte and Nova Canaã do Norte (MT) — as it also happened in June 2019 in another city in Mato Grosso.
The classic form of the disease is the most worrying and was first detected in 1986. In Brazil, it was never detected. It was this variant that caused the panic and deaths of the 1990s. It spreads quickly among animals through the ingestion of feed contaminated with prions.
There is no cure for Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease—which is fatal—and the only treatment is to help the patient live with the disorders it causes. Therefore, the main measure to prevent the disease is to use strict sanitary protocols that prevent the consumption of any contaminated meat.
In recent decades, according to the International Organization for Animal Health, the implementation of control measures has resulted in the decline of the classic variant worldwide.
What is known about this atypical version of the disease?
The atypical version — identified in Brazil now — is considered to occur “naturally and sporadically”, that is, it is probably always present in large populations of cattle, but in a very low proportion and is usually only identified when surveillance procedures are adopted intensive. The variant was only identified in the 2000s when prion investigation procedures were improved.
In Brazil, the two cases announced this weekend are the fourth and fifth cases already registered in the country.
In addition, the atypical version tends to affect only older cattle — exactly what happened in Belo Horizonte and Nova Canaã do Norte, according to the Ministry of Agriculture of Brazil.
The number of cases of atypical BSE is insignificant in the world, informs the International Organization for Animal Health. Every year, there are reports of atypical variants recorded in herds from cattle producing countries. The most common measure after detection is that cattle are killed and incinerated and tests are carried out to verify that there has been no contamination in the food chain.
Although there is no evidence that the atypical mad cow is transmissible, this hypothesis has not been ruled out either. Therefore, as a precautionary measure, health authorities do everything to prevent this variant from being introduced into the animal food chain.
Why did Brazil suspend exports?
On Saturday (09/04) Brazil suspended the export of meat to China, in compliance with a sanitary protocol between the two countries.
“The two cases of atypical BSE — one in each establishment — were detected during the ante-mortem inspection. They are cull cows that were of advanced age and were lying down in the corrals”, says a statement from the ministry.
Brazil today has an “insignificant level of risk” for mad cow cases. But there is concern that the country could be downgraded to “controlled risk level” status — which could lead to a prolonged suspension of Brazil’s exports to China.
Ireland, a light weight supplier of beef to China, reported a case of ‘atypical’ mad cow disease in May last year and had its status downgraded by the International Organization for Animal Health. The country has yet to resume exports, according to the Reuters news agency.
The suspension of exports to China is due to the strict sanitary protocol in force between the two countries.
A long-term suspension would economically harm Brazil and cause an imbalance in market prices — given the size of Brazil-China bilateral trade.
Brazil is the leader in beef exports to China. The country shipped more than 500,000 tonnes of beef to the Chinese from January to July this year, or 38% of China’s total imports. Brazil is well ahead of second-placed Argentina, which supplied just under 300,000 tonnes.
Analysts believe that if the problem is resolved soon, this week’s suspension should cause little fluctuation in beef prices.
What happened in the mad cow epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s?
The mad cow disease epidemic began in the UK in the 1980s. This led to the ban on the use of bovine offal for human consumption in 1989. Many people feared being contaminated by consuming mainly processed meat products.
The following year, Agriculture Minister John Gummer said beef was “completely” safe. To “prove it,” he called the press to a press conference where he ate a hamburger. At the same event, he tried to convince his 4-year-old daughter to eat too — she didn’t want to. That was before science confirmed the risk of the disease to humans.
The epidemic peaked between 1992 and 1993, when nearly 100,000 cases were confirmed. In total, it is estimated that 180 thousand heads of cattle have been affected.
The outbreak happened because the animals used to be fed feed made from leftover meat, giblets and bone marrow, which were often contaminated with prions.
To try to contain the disease, more than 4.4 million animals were sacrificed. Today, the brain and spinal cord are discarded and not returned to the food chain.
There is also a more rigorous monitoring process. After the link between BSE and vCJD was discovered, the UK introduced stricter controls to protect the population. It became illegal to sell certain cuts of meat, including the sale of bone-in meat – this was introduced in 1997 and removed a year later.
Another measure was to import plasma to treat people born after January 1996 in case of exposure to the disease. Many countries stopped importing meat from the UK – China only ended its restriction in 2018.
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