By Charles Abbott
WASHINGTON, Feb 20 (Reuters) - The United States is expected to get the top safety rating for mad cow disease in spring, under a recommendation from international livestock health experts that was greeted on Wednesday as a sure-fire boost to U.S. beef exports.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the recommended upgrade, to "negligible" from "controlled" risk, was proof that U.S. beef meets the highest safety standards in the world. A trade group, the U.S. Cattlemen's Association, said the move was "a big step forward towards enhancing our export opportunities."
The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) was expected to formally adopt the recommendation at its annual meeting in May in Paris. OIE's scientific arm recommended the upgrade after reviewing U.S. safeguards.
The United States would be the 20th country to get a negligible risk rating for the fatal, brain-wasting disease, formally named bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), according to data on OIE's website.
Four cases of BSE have been reported in the United States since 2003. The most recent was April 24, 2012, in an elderly, lame dairy cow in southern California.
For years, mad cow disease was dreaded because of the possibility that people could acquire a human version by eating infected meat products. Fear has subsided as stringent controls have reduced the number of cases to a relative handful worldwide.
The United States requested an upgrade in its OIE rating last year. Vilsack said the OIE panel agreed U.S. safeguards and surveillance systems were strong. "Being classified as negligible risk for BSE by the OIE will also greatly support our efforts to increase exports of U.S. beef and beef products," he said.
Early this year, Japan relaxed limits that were imposed on U.S. beef imports a decade ago, following discovery of the first U.S. case of mad cow.
U.S. safeguards include a ban on using ruminant parts in cattle feed and keeping spinal cords, brains and nervous tissue, the items most at risk of infection, out of the food supply. USDA tests about 40,000 head a year for the disease.