Whatever happened to Mad Cow Disease in the US?

Sometime last year, I think, there was a momentary national buzz about “mad cow disease” in America. Within a month it was over, and I haven’t heard anything about it since. Despite all the fuss, I can’t even remember the specifics of the case: was it a cow that had it here, or a whole herd? And did anybody become infected with the disease here in the US?

Did we step up any cattle inspection measures to ensure the safety of our meat? I think I recall hearing that the disease could only be transmitted by brain tissue, so I guess steaks and chops and whatnot wouldn’t need to be inspected, but low-grade ground beef might contain all manner of pulverized scraps, so do they check that now as well?

There’s been a tiny number of cases of BSE in the USA (only two by June this year, the last cite I can find on Google). Naturally, the first created a huge media storm…but the politicians know that this only lasts until the next media storm about Iraq/Britney/etc.

Essentially, it’s become pretty obvious that there’s little to worry about. Given the 10-year incubation of the human form, and the time span from when steps were taken to eliminate BSE in Britain, there’d be people dropping down with vCJD in tens of thousands if the worst-case-scenario predictions were right. They weren’t. It’s not a zero risk, but personally I’d be more concerned about getting E-Coli due to bad abatoir conditions.

For some years, the feeding practices that transmit the disease among cattle have already been illegal in the US. The cow that hit the news was an an old milk cow born before the newer regulations were in place. There is some concern, as dried out milk cows are often used in hamburger, but as long as the brain and spinal cord stay out of it, BSE still shouldn’t be transmissable to humans, and it’s only a matter of time before no more cows raised prior to the new regs will exist any more.

Yep. It was one case, they caught it, took care of it, and that seems to be it. For now, anyway…

Here’s what happened as best I can recall …

Feeding cows ground-up bits of other animals (which is what led to the big BSE scare) has been illegal in the US since 1997.

The scare we had a year or two ago involved a cow that was thought to have been born after the ban went into effect. Everybody thought that cows born after the ban would be fine, but when this post-ban BSE-having cow showed up, it sent everybody into a panic – maybe we didn’t understand what was going on as well as we thought! Maybe we weren’t safe after all! US beef was banned in zillions of countries! WE WERE ALL GONNA DIE!

Then some additional documentation was discovered that showed there was an additional step to that poor dead cow’s life that nobody had known about before. It had been assumed that the earliest records of her were from the place she was born (and as I recall, that was someplace in the Pacific Northwest). The new evidence showed that she was not, in fact, born in the US, but that she had been sent to that place from another place in Canada, where she really was born. And that extra step added a little bit of time to her age, which meant that – praise the lord! – she wasn’t born after the ban after all, she was born in the bad old days of involuntarily-carnivorous-and-cannibalistic cows.

So it seems likely she was infected from some bad feed before being sent to the US, and everybody breathed a sigh of relief (except Canada) and shelved the plans for having to do brain exams on every slaughtered cow before selling its meat.

Note that since the above is all from memory, I may be wrong on details and/or everything. If anybody has more details, please, I beg of you, fill me in and/or contradict me.

In the UK, there have been quite a few cases of BSE in cows born after the feed ban.

The risk is extremely small. However, there’s a small chink in the armor. It’s illegal to feed cattle and sheep bits to cattle and sheep. However, it’s still legal to feed those shreds to chickens. No hazard there, however chickens spill a lot of feed, and it’s legal to feed the floor sweepings to cattle.

So, let’s review. BSE-bearing cows are very rare, and in the unlikely event that bits of a diseased beast end up in chicken feed, and in the event that some of that chicken feed gets swept up and fed to cattle (not a common practice,) there’s a teensy chance that some young animal will be freshly infected. The odds are getting astronomical now, but if that unfortunate hypothetical animal is disassembled in a sloppy or illegal manner, and some brain or spinal tissue gets into your Cheerful Farm Summer Sausage Beef Stick*, then you, gentle reader might be at some slight risk.

Dirty Farmer Harry says, “How unlucky do ya feel, punk? Well?” :dubious:

*I sure hope there’s not really a brand name called Cheerful Farm.

I remain a bit concerned about mad cow or bse in our food supply. I have read that some of the new steps that were to be put into place to protect the food supply have not been implemented as of yet. In addition, I am concerned that the incubation for mad cow in humans can range as high to 30-60 years. We really don’t know enough as of yet to say how many people are harbouring the disease. Another thing that scares me is that it is commonly accepted that you can’t get mad cow from muscle tissue–I have read that you indeed can.

On the other hand, I feel a bit better that only about 140 people have come down with the illness in the UK. Of course, anyone getting the disease is terrible.

I believe the risk is probably small, but there is still a lot that isn’t known (IMHO). So I remain very cautious and rarely eat meat. When I do, I only eat organic meats (grain fed/no animal products in feed).

As I understand it, the law forbids feeding cattle meat to cattle and sheep meat to sheep.


It is legal to feed cattle meat to sheep and sheep meat to cattle.

That’s one hell of a deck to shuffle.

Actually, I think it was illegal to feed ungulate protein to ungulates, so sheep and cattle couldn’t be fed to each other. However, it was legal to loop through pork or chickens. Now, though, it’s illegal to feed any animal protein to cattle - at least in Canada. I’m not positive that the US did the same, but usually the two countries try to keep regulations in harmony, because the industry is so integrated. Or was, at least, prior to the border being slammed shut.

There’s a fair amount of ignorance in this thread, but I’m not in the mood to get my cites all in a row to dispell it.

I’d just like to point out that BSE is not an infectious disease spread by a foreign virus or bacterium. It is a spontaneous random refolding of a normal brain protein in cattle (and humans). The thing that makes it special is that the refolded form of the protein, called a ‘prion’, can catalyze the refolding of other copies of the prion.

It’s possible, perhaps even probable, that you have at least one of these prions in your own brain - like every human or higher mammal that ever lived. A single protein in a whole brain can’t catalyze much, or do much damage, and eventually degrades, like any protein. However, through time, bad luck or predisposition, aome unfortunates accumulate hundreds or thousands of prions-- enough to persist long enough for the process to take off exponentially. Over months or years, they build up million or billions of prions, catalyzing and doing damage at an ever accelerating rate.

In short: given the hundreds of millions of cows in the US, there will ALWAYS be a few random “spontaneous” cases no matter how tightly we control contagious spread, just as we’ve always had a few spontaneous cases each year of the human equivalent: spontaneous Kreutzfeld-Jacob disease.

The normal PrPP proteins in cows, sheep, humans, etc. are not identical, and may not be identical between individuals. There may also several altenative foldings of each subtype, with different catalytiic efficiencies and varying abilities to catalyze the refolding of other subtypes within or between species. This contributes to the spread between species, and the appearance of ‘outbreaks’. It also sometimes allows us to do a limited degree of tracking of to tell if an outbreak is independent or linked to others.

I’m not saying that transmitted BSE, scrapie, vCJD etc. aren’t serious concerns-- but a few US cases are inevitable and normal. Barring a re-engineering of the affected species, It’d be impossible for them to ever stop. In fact, if our government reported zero BSE cases for too long (I don’t have the exact spontaneous incidence figures handy), I’d strongly suspect either a systematic coverup or very sloppy monitoring. BSE has been around longer than humans have

Mammalian protein in ruminant feed is what is banned in the US. We banned it back in 1997. Here is the relevant CFR: http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/CFRSearch.cfm?FR=589.2000

I realize that might be kind of hard to parse, so here is the meat, so to speak: