Mad cow comes to town!
2. Mad-cow history
3. "Abundant caution"
4. Making sense of the
5. The weirdest agent
Bovine spongiform encephalopathy
(BSE): Mad cow disease.
Chronic wasting disease:
A TSE in deer and elk.
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD):
Fatal, human TSE, strikes one person in a million.
Prion: A protein that, when
misshapen, can cause other prions to fold wrongly. Causes all TSEs.
Scrapie: A TSE in sheep.
Known since the 1700s; does not infect people.
Transmissible spongiform encephalopathy:
TSE. Infectious brain diseases caused by prions.
Variant CJD (vCJD): The
"human" version of mad cow. Similar to CJD; strikes younger
It's what America eats for dinner. But is it safe?
Original photo (and variation at top of
discovery of a mad cow in Washington state has stunned the beef
industry. Did government respond effectively, or are the new regulations
just chickenfeed? Photo by Jeff Miller,
Disturbing questions about what's on your plate
surfaced Dec. 23, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced
that a dairy cow that was cut up for meat in Washington State on Dec.
9 had mad cow disease.
BSE-infected cow shows some hallmark symptoms of the disease: abnormal
posture, difficulty standing, and weight loss. Photo
by Art Davis, USDA.
Mad cow -- AKA BSE, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy
-- is an infectious disease carried by a misshapen protein. BSE
is one of the TSEs, which stands for "transmissible spongiform encephalopathy."
The TSEs cut holes in the brains of people and other mammals, making them look like sponges (hence the bloviated term "spongiform encephalopathy"). TSEs are incurable and always fatal.
To date, the mad-cow epidemic has killed about
140 Britons since 1995. Eventually, at least 200,000 British cows
-- perhaps 1 million -- went mad.
Economically, BSE skinned and boned the British
beef industry. Could it eviscerate the $27-billion U.S. industry?
As federal officials scrambled to recall meat
that may have been eaten by people in six states, mad cow made irresistible
headlines. A late December survey by the National Cattlemen's Beef
Association found that 96 percent of consumers -- practically every
American not in a vegetative state -- knew something about the disease,
up from 61 percent in September.
The survey found that American consumers remained confident
in the safety of beef. And certainly, mad cow is peanuts compared
to other food-borne illnesses, which "cause approximately 76 million
illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United
States each year," according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Still, mad cow is scary. Overseas, more than 30 countries have banned imports of U.S. beef. In Japan, "Senior Japanese officials on Tuesday were sharply critical of U.S. efforts to guard against the disease," Reuters reported on Jan. 6. "'The U.S. safeguards are not up to the level of those (in Japan),'" said Agriculture Minister Yoshiyuki Kamei (see "Cattle Prices..." in the bibliography). In 2001, Japan reacted to a small BSE outbreak by testing every animal before it becomes meat.
As the bad news rolled on, prices fell. On the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the price for February delivery of finished beef cattle fell from $0.91 per pound on Dec. 23 to $0.74 on Jan. 6.
Faced with headlines, doubts and import bans, the beef industry reversed itself and agreed to stronger regulation. An industry that had long opposed the importation of beef from a country with mad cow disease urged the U.S. government to push other countries to import beef from the United States, a nation that now has mad cow. On Jan. 1, Reuters noted that "In the past, nations could expect lengthy cut-offs in trade once mad cow disease was discovered," adding that the United States had halted beef imports from Canada after mad cow was discovered there in May, 2003.
For its part, the USDA had to admit that its rules had failed to
prevent the entry of BSE and explain why it suddenly favored a ban
on downer cows. According to the Washington Post, "The Agriculture
Department's announcement yesterday of a ban on the sale of meat
from ailing 'downer' cattle marked a policy turnabout for the Bush
administration, coming only a few weeks after the department and
allies in the powerful meat lobby blocked an identical measure in
Congress" (see "Banning Sale of 'Downer' Meat..." in the bibliography).
Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman announces
tighter regulations to defeat mad cow. But will they be enough to
outwit a nasty foe? Photo: USDA
On Dec. 31, the day that article was published,
Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman gamely explained
her position. "For more than a decade, the United States has had
in place an aggressive surveillance, detection and response program
for BSE. While we are confident that the United States has safeguards
and firewalls needed to protect public health, these additional
actions will further strengthen our protection systems."
The key regulatory tactic is to keep brain,
spinal cord and a few other tissues out of the food supply, since
that's where the BSE infection is concentrated. Beyond tightening
restrictions on tissues known to carry mad cow, USDA will, for the
first time, ban what it delicately called "non-ambulatory" -- downer
-- cows from the human food chain.
The USDA no longer allows meat from so-called
"downer" cows, like this one, to enter the human food
chain. Photo ©
With its members' livelihoods at stake, on Dec. 31 the NCBA announced support for the new USDA rules, which would also segregate meat from tested cows until after tests come back clean, and ease disease tracking with a new national registry for beef animals.
Too little, too late, says industry critic Michael Greger, a medical doctor who covers the issue for Farm Sanctuary, an "animal-protection" group, and Organic Consumers, which promotes organic agriculture.
Greger sees serious loopholes in the new regulations. For one thing, he says, Veneman said nothing about increasing the rate of testing. For another, the USDA will continue to permit the processing of slaughterhouse waste into animal food. Blood meal, for example, can still be fed to cows and calves. And chickens, pigs and fish can still eat many types of ruminant wastes.
Feeding animal parts to animals caused the BSE epidemic in Great Britain. We'll examine whether the United States could repeat the British bungle.
First, let's meet mad cow disease.