For the first time in 74 years, all 50 states, including Texas, have been declared brucellosis-free.
That announcement came Feb. 1 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). It is the first time ever that the entire United States, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands have all simultaneously achieved a class-free status.
"Today is a landmark day for the nation’s number one cattle state," said Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples. "Decades of hard work are now paying off with this incredible accomplishment. I commend the Texas cattle industry and the Texas Animal Health Commission for working together to establish Texas as brucellosis-free."
For nearly five decades, Texas cattle producers have battled brucellosis, a bacterial disease that poses no threat to food safety, but can cause decreased milk production, weight loss, infertility, loss of young and lameness in cattle.
Brucellosis, or "Bangs Disease," is caused by Brucella abortus, and it is a zoonotic disease, meaning it can be spread from animals to man. That caused significant human disease incidence until the eradication program reduced the incidence of the disease in cattle, and, sanitary practices and pasteurization procedures for milk were implemented to reduce transmission to humans.
There is no known treatment for brucellosis, and depopulation of infected and exposed animals is the only effective means of disease containment and eradication.
There are 14 million head of cattle in Texas, more than half of the state’s people population, and cattle production is the number one agricultural commodity in Texas in terms of cash receipts.
"The Texas cattle industry is a $16 billion business for the Texas economy," Staples said. "This new brucellosis-free status will positively improve the industry and help our dedicated cattle producers."
But news of the class-free status is no time to rest on laurels, state animal health officials say.
"We believe we found the last one—all the work we’ve done suggests we found the last infected herd, but can we absolutely say with 100 percent certainty there’s no more out there? I would not want to say that," said Dr. Bob Hillman with the Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC). "We certainly hope that’s the case, but we’ve got to do continued surveillance to assure that’s the case."
"The work is not over," he said. "Brucellosis-free status is based on a state finding no known brucellosis in cattle for 12 months. A state’s status can change if brucellosis is found in more than one herd of cattle in a brucellosis-free state within a two-year period."
Dr. Hillman credited the 2006 Brucellosis Eradication Working Group with re-evaluating all aspects of the Texas brucellosis program, in preparation for the USDA review, which was conducted in summer 2007. The group was comprised of about 25 cattle industry members.
"The efforts by the industry, the TAHC and USDA have brought us to a great place—disease eradication," Dr. Hillman said. "Now we must ensure that the disease is not reintroduced, or if it is lingering undetected, we must find the infection and eradicate it quickly."
To accomplish that, Dr. Hillman said continued testing of cattle prior to sale at markets or on the farm will be a priority for some period of time.
"We’ll also continue to do slaughter surveillance for many years to come, not only in Texas, but across the country. There’s a point in time in which we need to reduce surveillance, but we’ve got to be sure that not only we’re free but the country is free," he said.
What effect brucellosis has played on the Texas cattle industry in the past is something no one has yet quantified, Dr. Hillman said.
But it definitely played a significant factor.
"For many cattle producers in the early days of the program, it meant losing a herd with only salvage value payment, or having the herd under quarantine and being unable to sell animals for long periods of time. Some producers’ herds became re-infected. In recent years, infected herds were purchased from owners and depopulated whenever possible, to quickly wipe out infection," Hillman said.
Even for those who managed to escape direct infection, there was always a concern that the cattle had come from a state where the disease was known to exist, he added.
"I spent some time in another state and every time I saw Texas cattle coming in back in those days, I cringed wondering if this one was going to harm us," Dr. Hillman said. "If I was doing it, I’m sure many others were.
"Now we can say with confidence that our cattle are not exposed to or infected with brucellosis," he added. "Everybody knows we have high quality cattle, now we can just add a little bit of health assurance with that."
With continued diligence, Dr. Hillman added that the assurance could go a long way in bolstering U.S. cattle production.
"Keep in mind, we still have a brucellosis reservoir in the United States—fortunately, it’s not close to us, it’s up in the Yellowstone area—so we’ve got disease reservoirs out there," he said. "We’ve worked long and hard. Our industries have worked extremely diligently with us to eliminate brucellosis from our cattle populations. And we’re extremely pleased to get to that point. This victory for the cattle industry did not come easily or without hardship."
Staples echoed those sentiments.
"Decades of hard work are now paying off with this incredible accomplishment. I commend the cattle industry of the state and the TAHC for working together to establish Texas as cattle brucellosis-free," he said. "This new status will positively improve the industry and help our dedicated cattle producers."
Ernie Morales, TAHC chairman, agreed.
"Hearing the words ‘cattle brucellosis-free’ is music to the industry’s ears," he said. "While in the short term we will have to continue testing our cattle, there is a tremendous benefit for cattle producers to be able to market their cattle as cattle from a brucellosis-free state. This status designation will provide cattle producers and trading partners additional assurance that Texas cattle do not pose a disease risk."