Mad Cow Disease

Most of us have heard the news about Mad Cow disease in the United States. In December 2003 the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced a case of the disease found in Washington state. Investigators confirmed that the affected animal was a six and a half year old cow born in Canada and was imported to the U.S., in 2001. The cow was non-ambulatory (it could not walk to slaughter) and was labeled a “downer cow.” Because the cow was a “downer,” its neural tissues, considered to be at high risk for the transmission of the BSE agent, were removed before slaughter. Brain tissue samples were taken by the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) as part of its surveillance for BSE. And on December 23 2003 an early diagnosis of BSE was made. To protect residents, the herd to which the cow belonged was placed under a state hold order. This is the only known case of BSE in the United States.

Consequently, many of you may wonder what is safe to serve for dinner, and, ultimately, whether the U.S. human food supply is properly protected? Rightfully so, you are probably cautious about purchasing some of your weekly groceries. And some of you may now question whether vegetarianism might be an alternative for you and your families. Still, others of you are confident that the U.S food supply is and always has been safe; sorting all of this information can be very confusing.

What exactly is Mad Cow disease?

Mad Cow disease is the common name for Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE). It is a neurological disease that affects the central nervous system of adult cattle, and, apparently, is caused by a mutant protein that attacks the brain and nerves. An infected animal's brain and spinal cord are the body parts most likely to contain these abnormal (misshapen/ misfolded) proteins that are believed to cause the disease. BSE has been a concern since 1986 when it was first reported among cattle in the United Kingdom.

Throughout the world there have been more than 180,000 cases of Mad Cow disease, since it was first diagnosed. It has been confirmed in Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, The Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Switzerland. The majority of reported cases, however, have occurred in the United Kingdom.

The human equivalent of Mad Cow disease is called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. It is believed to be caused by the consumption of neural tissue, such as brain and spinal cord, from BSE affected cattle. It is not known how many people, world wide, have contracted Mad Cow disease, but in the United States only one case has been reported. It is believed that that person became infected while living in the United Kingdom, with symptoms of the disease surfacing years after her arrival. Even though the disease is very hard to diagnose, risk of contracting the disease appears to be very low.

The USDA has found that certain ground beef products contain central nervous system tissue. This meat comes from machines called advanced meat recovery (AMR) systems. These machines remove meat and strip soft tissue from bones. This meat is used in the production of hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza toppings and taco fillings. Advanced meat recovery systems can allow-pieces of spinal cord in the meat that these systems were designed to produce. These machines provide a pathway for BSE to get into human food.

What is the USDA doing as a result of these findings? The USDA's policy has been to be proactive and preventative. Surveillance, prevention, education and response measures are in place. On December 30, 2003 the USDA announced the following safeguards to minimize further risk and to ensure that U.S. beef remains the safest in the world:

  • Banned all non-ambulatory cattle from the human food chain.
  • Any cattle tested for BSE are not allowed into the food supply until tests show that it is safe.
  • Parts (material) of cattle over 30 months of age that are at risk will not be allowed to enter the human food supply.
  • Additional process controls are required for establishments using advanced meat recovery (AMR) systems.
  • For more information on additional safeguards, check the websites listed at the end of this article.

Even though the USDA has been proactive on this issue what can you do as a consumer to protect yourself?

It's not clear how much action individuals need to take, but for those of you who want to eliminate or minimize any possible hazard, avoid beef entirely and/or avoid the foods that could most likely carry Mad Cow disease. These products can include beef brains, neck bones and other processed beef products that may contain central nervous system tissue from infected cattle. Bone-in beef cuts like t-bone or porterhouse steaks, may pose a slight risk. Boneless cuts of beef like steaks, roasts, and ground beef (ground from whole muscle cuts of beef) appear to be at lower risk and are less likely to be contaminated.

Statistically, the risk of contracting Mad Cow disease is very low. We all want a safe and wholesome food supply. So, keep yourself well informed. Beef for dinner or vegetable lasagna? Ultimately, the choice is yours.

Consumers with food safety questions can call the toll-free USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854). This hotline is available in English and Spanish and can be accessed between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Eastern time), Monday through Friday.

For more information on mad cow disease, see the following websites: