Cow Madness

New mad cow woes

British beef blues

Curious cause

Down deer, ill elk

Can't happen here?

Laughing death in New Guinea

Identifying disease agents

Menacing microbes








Awareness, not panic, is consumers' best response to the mad cow threat. Where did YOUR lunch come from?
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Plenty of animals are presently eating rendered animal protein -- a potential source of mad cow disease.


Can't Happen Here?
Could mad cow disease jump the Atlantic, infect the U.S. cattle herd, and then infect people? Not likely, say some experts, but others are more cautious.

'Family Pack' of ground beef
Could fresh ground beef contain fresh prions, and cause fresh disease? Federal regulators say it need not happen here.
The protection rests on twin pillars: import restrictions and tests of diseased cattle and people performed at the National Prion Disease Pathology Surveillance Center (see "On Watch..." in the bibliography). The center examines tissue from some CJD victims, and to date, no sign of the human disease associated with mad cow disease has appeared.

The last imports of British beef occurred in 1989, and only 32 British animals entered the food chain during the 1980s. By 1990, the United States had prohibited the entry of live sheep and cattle , and rendered animal protein, from Britain.

On a sunny afternoon, a crowd gathers on street lined with food vendors.In 1997, a year after the mad cow meltdown in the United Kingdom, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the feeding of ruminant offal to ruminants. Since then, sparked by the recognition that aberrant prions spread more easily than expected, federal regulators have banned imports of beef and byproducts from all of Europe and, just recently, Brazil, which imported British cows in the 1980s.

Still worried?
Even a scare about BSE would spell disaster for the beef industry. (Want The Why Files guide to mad cow lingo?) Skeptics point to these reasons for worrying about the food supply:

Low concentrations of disease prions cannot be detected in the laboratory, so it's not possible to say that a certain food is not contaminated. Furthermore, the accepted test, made by Prionics and used on heavily infected animal parts, may miss some cases, according to a Jan. 11 Reuters report.

TSEs have a long incubation period, so disease can crop up years after exposure. That means control measures take years to work, and errors take years to surface.

The prion resists standard techniques for inactivating pathogens, including heat, radiation, sterilization with formaldehyde.

Pigs, fish and fowl are both eating rendered animal protein. And while there is no proof these animals can get a TSE from mad cows, TSEs have produced plenty of surprises to date.

Milk replacers fed to calves and pigs contain dried blood products taken from cows.

Regulations may be flouted. A Food and Drug Administration report in January, 2001, found that "hundreds of feed manufacturers and rendering companies were not complying with regulations intended to ensure the safety of domestically produced food," the New York Times reported (see "Stringent Steps..." in the bibliography).

Some British renderers (who dispose of diseased cattle) continued to ship meat and bone meal around the world, and European producers used the cheap meal at least until November, 2000. Maura Ricketts, a World Health Organization official, told the New York Times that "The murky movement of live cattle and rendered animals around the world" had allowed the cattle disease to spread around the world.

Bovine by-products are still being imported under loopholes in federal regulations. Permitted beef products include glandular material from cattle used for health supplements, and milk, blood, fat, gelatin, tallow, bone mineral extracts, collagen, semen. The materials are used for vaccines, medical products and other purposes. The FDA recently found that some manufacturers were ignoring guidelines intended to ensure that raw materials for vaccines came from BSE-free locations. The FDA's Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research says the chances of vaccine transmission are "remote," but still worth evaluation.

Still, with no sign that mad cow is present to date, and fairly stiff regulations in place, the beef industry says the biggest fear is fear itself. Rick McCarty, an issues manager with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, says, "What alarms the industry is misunderstanding of the disease in this country, seeing everything that's going on in Europe, and thinking the same thing could happen here."

But prion researchers have learned never to say never.

Big news. Cannibalism could be dangerous. Even ritual cannibalism.




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