May 4 2012 06:19 AM

Latest BSE case proved our monitoring system works, and that "stuff" happens naturally.

April 24 was vocabulary-building day not only for consumers, but for many dairy producers, too.

The word we learned was "atypical." We also learned that its meaning basically boils down to: Every now and then, "stuff" happens in nature. Good stuff, bad stuff, unusual stuff. Not very often and not always for a specific reason, but randomly, naturally, spontaneously, and just because. Call it an "oops" if you like.

That's what the most recent case of bovine spongiform encepahalopathy (BSE) in the U.S was, involving an old dairy cow in Hanford, Calif. – a random and natural event in nature that happened . . . just because.

In the parlance of doctors and others who have letters following their names, this BSE case was an "atypical" one. No one caused it; Mother Nature is the only one who messed up. It's happened in the U.S. before, and it will happen again.

The U.S. has had four confirmed BSE cases in history. The last three were determined to be atypical. Only the first one, in December 2003, was caused by feeds containing animal proteins, which have been banned in the U.S. ever since.

But more BSE cases will happen, and the great likelihood is they will be atypical, too. Here's why:

In 2007, Harvard University researchers created two statistical models to estimate how many we could expect. Their result: about one in six million head. With roughly nine million dairy cows, the U.S. should theoretically expect 1.5 atypical BSE cases every year. That there have only been three in nine years tells us two things: First, how truly rare natural, atypical BSE is. And second, how well our BSE surveillance and screening program is working.