Don’t Panic Over Mad Cow Disease

In the U.S., we don't hear much about mad cow or vCJD on a regular basis. If you watch the news or read major news outlets, though, you've probably heard about another "mad-cow death” just last week.

by Dani Yokhna
Don't Panic Over Mad Cow Disease - Photo courtesy iStock/Thinkstock (
Courtesy iStock/Thinkstock

My first trip abroad was in 1999—I went to England for the summer to work on a horse farm. There were signs all along the roadsides saying, “Buy British Beef.” This was as the terror of mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) was in full force in the country.

A Brief Walk Through Mad Cow History<
The European Union banned British beef from 1996 to 1999 for fear of people contracting variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease from consuming mad-cow-tainted meat. People were genuinely afraid of eating beef then. (I admit it—I ate beef while I was there.) I’ve been back to England four times since then, and there doesn’t seem to be much concern about beef safety now—BSE firmly in check.

Mad cow disease wiped out about 4 million cattle in the United Kingdom—most of which were destroyed as a precaution. You might imagine this was a serious jolt to the cattle industry there. Farmers were feeding cattle feed that included neurological tissue from other ruminants (including cattle), some of which contained mutated proteins—prions—that cause the disease, spreading it through herds around the country. Since then, most animal proteins have been banned in ruminant-animal feed.

In the U.S., a mad cow scare came in 2003, when one cow was found to have BSE. Hundreds of cows were destroyed and BSE testing took place nationwide (which can only be done by testing the brain after death), and mad cow never spread here.

No Brains for You
The concern over mad cow disease is the devastating variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which humans can contract from eating these prions in beef. Cooking doesn’t kill prions the way it does most bacteria. The prions only live in nervous-system tissue, and the USDA requires brains and spinal cords from “high-risk” cattle—older cattle, downer cows and cows showing signs of a neurological problem—not enter the food system. It’s super rare for a person to contract vCJD. When it does happen, nervous-system symptoms, such as depression and loss of coordination, first appear, followed by dementia and death within 13 months.

In the U.S., we don’t hear much about mad cow or vCJD on a regular basis. If you watch the news or read major news outlets, though, you’ve probably heard about another “mad-cow death” just last week. If you raise cattle or eat beef, this is understandably an unnerving headline.

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Here’s Why You Don’t Need to Panic:
The person who passed away from vCJD most likely contracted the disease during travel to Europe or the Middle East. There have been 220 cases of vCJD reported since it was first discovered in England in 1996. This is the fourth in the U.S., and none of the cases were believed to be contracted from eating beef in the U.S.

If you’re traveling to England or France—the two countries with the highest vCJD rates—your chance of contracting vCJD from eating beef products is about 1 in 10 billion servings—these are decent odds of coming out OK. You could better your odds by avoiding beef altogether or at least not eating products that have a higher risk of carrying the disease, such as brains or beef products that could contain or have come in contact with neurological tissue, like sausages and ground beef. (But, hey, it’s the U.K., so you could find horse meat in your burger, right?)

This case of vCJD has no impact on the U.S. beef supply or the health of our cattle herds. So carry on with your dinner plans of hamburgers and meatloaf—from sustainable, small-scale farms, please—and keep up your regular herd-health plans.

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