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Why this mad cow disease case is different

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Is the tag "mad cow disease" losing some of its sting?

It looks that way, to judge by the response to the case in California, where a dairy cow taken to a rendering facility to be used for making glue and soap was found to have the disease, officially known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE.

While there was a question mark remaining over one big beef buyer on Wednesday, Russia, and two South Korean supermarket chains suspended sales, most importers said they were open for US beef business as usual.

Past responses

That's a big difference to the response to previous outbreaks.

South Korea took until this year to lift a ban on Canadian beef, imposed following a BSE case in 2003, and retains some restrictions on age of cattle from which US meat is sourced, as does Japan.

Taiwan has kept a ban on mince and beef organs.

And the US itself has been one of the toughest respondents to BSE findings elsewhere.

The US has "not imported any beef from the UK since before 1985", according to the National Milk Federation, the UK being where the disease was first identified, in the 1980s, although which has now gone three years without a confirmed case.

Broad benefits

That the US case has prompted so small a backlash, thus far, appears to show a world less anxious over tackling and containing the disease, which is potentially fatal for humans as well as cattle.

Sure, banning US beef may not be quite as painless now as in the past for importing countries, given the dearth of supplies elsewhere.

The US now exports 10% of its beef, twice the amount in 2006, when the country last identified BSE, and accounts for more than 15% of world trade.

Voters already grumbling at austerity are hardly likely to react well to soaring steak prices forced by squeezed supplies.

But authorities are hardly likely to play loose with public health.

The, apparent, stringency of US procedures for tackling the disease, and the transparency with which it seems to have dealt with this week's case, has done a favour to beef eaters abroad, as well as to American meat processors, livestock farmers and the feed groups they patronise.


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