Mad cow comin' home
POSTED 15 JAN 2004

1. Mad cow comes to town!

2. Mad-cow history

3. "Abundant caution" or half-measures?

4. Making sense of the threat

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 people.

It's what America eats for dinner. But is it safe?

 By New Year's, practically every American not in a vegetative state knew about mad cow disease.
Original photo (and variation at top of page):
©Farm Sanctuary

The 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, copyright UW-Madison

Slaughterhouse blues
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.

Sickly cow stands in the mudThis 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.

packaged beef

Mad about mad cow
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.

Beef. Is it still for dinner?
 Black and white cows eye the camera. 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).

Woman points finger from podium. 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.

cow lying down on cement, 'Downer area suspect pen' sign in back
The USDA no longer allows meat from so-called "downer" cows, like this one, to enter the human food chain. Photo © Farm Sanctuary

The costs of inaction
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.

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Terry Devitt, editor; Sarah Goforth, project assistant; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

©2004, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.