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Mad Cow Disease and Meat Consumption

The first new case of mad cow disease in the U.S. since 2006 has been discovered in a dairy cow in California. The infected cow was the fourth ever discovered in the U.S., and was found as part of a USDA surveillance program that tests about 40,000 cows each year.

The infected cow was discovered at a rendering plant, meaning its meat was never bound for the country’s food supply, noted John Clifford, the USDA’s chief veterinary officer. Rendering plants process animal parts intended for use in animal food, soap, chemicals or other household products – not the human food supply.

Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is fatal to cows and can cause Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (a fatal human brain disease) in people who eat infected meat. However, according to the FDA there is currently no evidence suggesting that humans can be infected by drinking milk from animals with BSE.

The spread of mad cow disease has largely been linked to the use of recycled meat and bone meal in cattle feed. Thus, following the enormous mad cow disease outbreak in Britian in the early 90s that killed more than 150 people and 180,000 cattle, the U.S. banned feed containing these materials in 1997 as a precaution to keep BSE out of the country’s food supply.

Given this ban, the California cow is unsurprisingly what scientists call an atypical case of BSE, meaning it came as a result of a random mutation, not from infected cattle feed.

There have been three other confirmed cases of BSE in U.S. cows – in 2003 in Washington state, in 2005 in Texas and in 2006 in Alabama. Both the 2005 and 2006 cases were also considered atypical cases and brought no major repercussions.

However, the 2003 outbreak had crippling effects on the cattle industry. Beef exports fell by more than 70 percent, as consumer confidence in U.S. beef products fell, and a number of major buyers in Southeast Asia ban banned all U.S. beef imports.

What will be the impacts of the most recent confirmed case of mad cow disease? Experts disagree.

Stevie Ipsen, director of communications for the California Cattlemen’s Association was quoted: “This is a big deal. People have a lot of fear over mad cow disease and for good reason. But our country’s meat is still the safest in the world. We’re confident people will carry on eating beef.”

Meanwhile, a senior scientist for Consumer Reports is critical even of the tightened U.S. mad cow disease policy, noting: “We still allow risky practices. You can’t feed cows to cows directly. But you can feed cows to pigs and chickens and then feed them to cows.”

Regardless of the statistical risk, Ipsen is right – this IS a big deal. Add this case of mad cow disease to the HUGE pile of recent news about the health risks and problems either exacerbated by or directly caused by meat consumption.

Just a few recent headlines:

While the infected cow was not bound for the country’s food supply, let’s allow this case to serve as a reminder that the impacts of eating animals are felt well beyond the dinner table. May the downward spiral of meat consumption continue!

Image Credit: maraker/Flickr