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Mad Cows, Scientists & Lawmakers

May 7, 2012
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How many cows are infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (aka Mad Cow Disease or BSE for short) in America?

Well, the USDA and the beef producers would like you to believe there are none. The claim is that they have put protocols on animal feed (thankfully they’ve stopped feeding ground up cows to cows), slaughter (cows that are too sick to walk on their own into the abattoir are now unfit for human consumption) and processing (brains and spinal cords are removed from carcasses and considered high risk materials).

These steps have helped to reduce the already low risk of this disease.

Except they don’t really know for sure, because the US doesn’t require BSE testing like some other countries. And the USDA has even actively thwarted private producers from testing for BSE in the past. So lo and behold, what shows up in California last week? A cow with BSE.

Now this is no reason to panic, however it is a good reminder to be informed about the disease, its effects on people, and the shenanigans of our regulators. To be fair, they say that this cow was never in danger of getting into the food supply. They also are saying that it’s some different form of the disease. As this case unfolds, it will be interesting to learn how this cow contracted the disease.

Eating contaminated meat is no joke.

Nasty bacteria can be neutralized by cooking your hamburger to death. FTLB (aka Pink Slime) may be highly processed and unappetizing, but I don’t think it’s particularly unsafe. BSE is believed to be the cause of variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, and if you get that you die.

The most unsettling part is that you can have vCJD now and not even know it because the incubation period can be decades long. Yes, that means you could have some deadly incurable disease germinating inside of you from that sketchy burger you ate twenty years ago.

Perhaps you can see why some countries take this very seriously, like South Korea for example. They are one of those otherwise civilized nations that has just suspended US beef imports on the heels of this news. Because in their country they test cows for BSE before they go into the food supply.

We don’t. Okay, we effectively don’t. 110 cows tested out of 100,000 cows slaughtered (per day) leaves some pretty big holes in the net.

Some say the concern is cost. It would be too expensive to do. But proponents say consumers could foot the bill by sucking up a whopping ten cents per pound premium for tested beef. But the test isn’t perfect. BSE is a tricky disease and false negatives are common. So tested beef cannot truly claim to be BSE free.

However, in a very persuasive letter from the Senior Scientist of Senior of Advocacy and Public Policy for the Consumers Union to the Secretary of Agriculture at the USDA is the following data point in support of testing:

In the European Union, testing of healthy cattle approved for slaughter turned up over 1,100 of cases of BSE between 2001 and 2006 ( Thus, these rapid tests are useful for screening cattle at slaughter and can pick up a significant number of cases of BSE that would otherwise not be detected and have gone into the food and feed chains.

Now remember how I said not to panic? It’s true. Despite all of this my back-of-the-napkin calculations show that the total global deaths from confirmed cases of vCJD are roughly equivalent to 90 minutes of US traffic fatalities. This isn’t a reason to stop eating beef. It is, however, a reason to be pissed at the USDA for being more concerned about protecting the US beef producers than the health of taxpayers.

It is also a good reason to remember the importance of knowing where your food comes from. Good meat isn’t cheap. And cheap meat is cheap for a reason. I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes. But when the next case of BSE shows up somewhere in America, hopefully you won’t be surprised. It’s out there.

This is our fourth sighting of it domestically. I fully expect there to be more in the future. Why? Well consider this blurb from the ABC News report on this latest incident:

Bovine protein is routinely fed to egg-laying chickens, and the “litter” from those chickens — chicken excrement and the feed that spills onto the floor — is collected and rendered back into cattle feed. Neurodegenerative researchers such as UC San Francisco’s Dr. Stanley Prusiner, who received the 1997 Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering prions — the protein associated with BSE — has warned that the US should ban poultry waste in cattle feed.

But there are vastly more lottery winners than there are victims of vCJD, and I’ve never met any of them. So let’s just hope our luck holds out.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. ginamodschooler permalink
    May 7, 2012 2:15 pm

    Isn’t is sad that we need someone to make poultry waste in cattle feed illegal? Cripes. We get our beef from a local farmer, and have for the past several years, but I wonder about what we’re getting when we eat out. Ugh.

  2. mister_ethan permalink
    May 8, 2012 12:57 pm


  3. May 18, 2012 2:42 pm

    The USDA is deceiving the public about the true risks from mad cow prion diseases.

    Out of about 35 million animals slaughtered, only 35,000 are tested for mad cow –1/10th of one percent. There are 1.9 million “Downers” – diseased, disabled, dead or dying cows each year. At least one million of the downers are rendered into pet and animal feeds. These downers are the animals most likely to have mad cow disease. But ONLY 5000 downers are BSE tested at the renderers – less than one quarter of one percent (0.0025%)

    “Samples are collected from renderers and 3D/4D facilities, with a quota set at 5,000 samples.”

    Three out of four US mad cows had Bovine Amyloidotic Spongiform Encephalopathy (BASE). The USDA says this strain of mad cow disease presents no risk to humans or animals “because it is not transmissible”.

    Published, peer reviewed studies reveal otherwise:

    “Intraspecies Transmission of BASE Induces Clinical Dullness and Amyotrophic Changes”

    ‘Several lines of evidence suggest that BASE is highly virulent and easily transmissible to a wide host range. ”
    ( Lombardi, G, et al 2008)

    “Atypical BSE in Germany— Proof of transmissibility and biochemical characterization”
    (Buschman, A. et als – 2006)”

    ” Atypical BSE (BASE) transmitted from asymptomatic aging cattle to a primate”
    (Comoy, E.E. et als – 2008)”

    Dr. Claudio Soto, et al, have confirmed that Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is a transmissible prion disease – 6 million US victims – new case every 69 seconds.


    The common neuropathy in both AD victims and BASE mad cows is the presence of amyloid plaques in the brains.

    Alzheimer’s Disease Trigger Mimics Mad Cow Infectious Agent

    Aging asymptomatic dairy cows infected with BASE mad cow, are ending up untested in huge industrial mixing vats of hamburger, each containing meat from 50 to 100 animals from multiple states and two to four countries

    Respectfully submitted, Helane Shields, Alton, NH


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