Published on Wednesday, January 7, 2004 by the lnter Press Service
Brazil's Vegetarian Cows Don't Go Mad
by Mario Osava
RIO DE JANEIRO - In the era of mad cow disease, the ability to certify that your cattle are purely vegetarian constitutes an indispensable weapon for beef exporters like Brazil.
That conviction prompted the governmental Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA) to develop, in its Center of Genetic Resources in Brasilia, a fast, effective method to detect the presence of animal protein in livestock feed.
Brazil benefited by the lengthy drought that has devastated cattle producers in Australia, overtaking that country as the world's biggest beef exporter, selling 1.3 million tons in 2003, 30 percent more than in 2002.
Brazil's stockbreeding industry has made progress in terms of both productivity and quality in the past few years.
But the country's cattle producers have also been favored by the appearance of mad cow disease, or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), which first emerged in the 1980s among European cattle raised in feedlots and fed ration containing meat and bonemeal.
In Brazil and other South American countries, cattle are grass- and range-fed, and their diets are supplemented by feed made up exclusively of grains, which means they are considered immune to BSE.
But that has not kept the country safe from the ''terrorism of rumors'', such as the one that circulated in 2001 after Canadian authorities refused to rule out the presence of mad cow disease in Brazil, Carlos Block, one of the experts who developed the new EMBRAPA technique to identify the presence of animal protein in livestock feed, told IPS.
The researcher was referring to Canada's decision to cut off imports of Brazilian beef, based on the argument that it had not received information on Brazil's livestock requested three years earlier.
Canadian authorities asserted that the risk of BSE could not be ruled out in Brazil because it had imported European livestock.
But the Brazilian government interpreted the Canadian measure -- which was automatically extended to the United States and Mexico, its partners in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) -- as a trade reprisal.
At the time, the two countries were involved in a heated dispute in the World Trade Organization (WTO), mutually accusing each other of unfairly subsidizing exports of regional jets.
Canada's Bombardier and Brazil's Embraer aircraft manufacturers are competitors in the market for medium-sized airplanes.
To defend its growing exports of beef, Brazil decided to implement a national livestock tracing or cattle-tracking system, and to develop a method to monitor the ration fed to cattle, to ensure that it does not contain cattle or sheep by-products or other forms of animal protein, said Block, a biologist who specializes in the study of proteins.
The method developed by EMBRAPA is more advanced than the ones used in the rest of the world, he maintained, because it allows the detection and identification of traces of animal protein within hours.
The innovative technique is based on mass spectrometry, used to identify proteins, Block explained.
The low cost of the test makes it easy to monitor the livestock feed produced by some 700 plants in Brazil by periodically analyzing samples.
The expense is insignificant in comparison to the billions of dollars at stake in the competition for beef markets, said Block.
Systematic use of the test would ensure that the animal feed consumed by cattle in Brazil contains no animal proteins, not even traces left by poorly-cleaned machines, thus guaranteeing that Brazilian cattle are safe from the risk of contracting BSE.
The three other methods developed in other countries to monitor livestock feed for animal protein use microscopic examination, the identification of pork protein antibodies, and DNA analysis.
But according to Block, the techniques are not as effective, and often take too long to produce results.
EU experts who visited Brazil to assess the quality of local livestock acknowledged the superiority of the Brazilian method, he said.
Block recommends that the technique be extended to neighboring Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, in order to certify that the entire Southern Common Market (Mercosur) trade bloc is a BSE-free area, as insurance against possible rumors or sabotage.
Brazil's weight in agricultural trade, in which it is the world's leader in commodities like coffee, sugar, soybeans, and now beef, makes it a potential target of protectionist measures or other actions to undermine its competitiveness, said Agriculture Minister Roberto Rodrigues.
BSE swept through Europe's livestock, and is now threatening cattle in the United States, which reported the first case on Dec. 23.
The disease first appeared in 1986 in British cattle fed ration containing bonemeal from sheep. Infected animals, whose brains eventually take on a sponge-like consistency, suffer motor function changes, and loss of large movements, such as walking. The disease is inevitably fatal.
But the panic began to spread around the world 10 years later, when consumption of beef from infected animals was linked to a similar fatal, degenerative disease in humans known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD).
The alarm was triggered by the deaths of several young people, because CJD had previously only affected the elderly. CJD has claimed the lives of a total of 153 people around the world who had eaten BSE-infected beef.
Millions of head of cattle were slaughtered in Europe, especially Britain, to get mad cow disease under control.
The appearance of the first case of BSE in the United States could give a boost to the beef exports of Brazil and the rest of the members of the Mercosur, because at least 30 countries have suspended imports of U.S. beef.
But some analysts predict an initial fall in prices and consumption.
The United States is the world's third-largest exporter of beef, exporting 1.1 million tons a year. Its biggest markets, Japan and South Korea, do not import beef from the Mercosur due to health concerns arising from outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease in the past few years.
But Brazil will benefit in other ways, by expanding exports of soybeans, which are increasingly used in animal feed, and of chicken, the consumption of which should rise due to fear of eating beef infected with mad cow disease.
© 2004 Inter Press Service