Mad Cow Disease in California: 5 Things You Need To Know

mad cow disease risks
Mad cow disease, or atypical bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), was detected in a cow during a routine inspection of a California rendering plant earlier this week, and reactions from the media and health organizations have been mixed. So far, many are saying that this isn’t a reason to worry, but BSE is believed to cause Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease —a degenerative neurological disease that’s fatal, and incurable. So a lot of people are worried.

Here’s what we think you need to know about the current case to decide whether you’re willing to eat a burger anytime soon:

  1. The USDA says U.S. beef is safe: USDA chief veterinarian John Clifford says that mad cow disease didn’t enter the human food chain, and the single case will not trigger an alert about U.S. beef products. It was detected in a dairy cow (dairy doesn’t transmit BSE) and because the cow “was never presented for slaughter for human consumption,” according to a statement from Clifford, it “at no time presented a risk to the food supply or human health.” Rather than proving a need to avoid red meat, he says this is a sign of how successful detection programs are. The UN Food & Agriculture Organization and the World Organisation for Animal Health agree.
  2. Others worry that random testing isn’t adequate: According to Michael Hansen, a staff scientist at Yonkers, New York-based advocacy group Consumers Union, testing 40,000 cows a year—less than 0.1 percent of the U.S. cattle herd—isn’t enough. UN FAO Chief Veterinary Officer Juan Lubroth told the Washington Post that although not all animals that enter the food chain are tested, all downers (cows too weak to stand) are, which in his view is “likely sufficient.”
  3. This is the first case of BSE since 2006: Officials are citing this fact, and other stats, as good reason to stay calm and carry on. Last year, 29 cases of the mad cow disease were found worldwide, and according to Clifford (the USDA vet), there has been a “99% reduction [in BSE] since the peak in 1992 of 37,311 cases.” He attributes this directly “to the impact and effectiveness of feed bans as a primary control measure for the disease”—referring to laws against feeding livestock the remains of other animals, due to evidence that the practice is to blame for spreading the disease.
  4. But there are feed ban loopholes: According to an editorial published in Huffington Post by Michael Gregor, M.D. (one of the doctors called in to testify during Oprah’s “meat defamation” trial in the 90s), there are still loopholes to feed bans that we should all be aware of. Gregor explains that the majority of dairy farmers wean cattle on an artificial milk replacer—which often contains dried blood for added protein. The FDA initially proposed a bad on the use of blood and blood products, but didn’t follow through—Gregor hopes the current mad cow disease scare will jolt us into demanding that they do.
  5. South Korea isn’t buying it: Literally. Though the government hasn’t taken action yet, at least one retailer in South Korea (which is one of the biggest importers of U.S. beef) has already halted sales to “relieve customers of anxiety” surrounding the beef.

Still confused? The moral of the story so far is that, while BSE is rare (NPR says it currently affects 0.167 cows per million in the United States) and there isn’t currently reason to believe that we’re facing an outbreak of the disease in our food supply, there are flaws in our food system that introduce certain risks. It doesn’t appear that the safety of beef has dramatically changed just yet—so far, no public health officials here or abroad appear to be seriously concerned—but this case will inevitably cause individual consumers to contemplate how comfortable they are with the risks.

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