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As a consumer, I'm concerned about mad cow disease. Can you give me information?

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With recent information that has surfaced, it is natural to have concerns about mad cow disease and the affect it may have on consumers. Because this concern involves our food supply, consumers should certainly become informed. However, they should recognize that on the basis of statistics or risk analysis, they are at a much lower risk of any problems related to mad cow disease than they are when they enter the shower, ride in a car or plane or attend a public function. The following are commonly asked questions about mad cow disease.

  • What is BSE? Commonly called mad cow disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) is a disease of cattle which causes a degeneration of brain tissue, inability to move or function normally and eventual death.
  • What causes BSE? It is caused by a small piece of protein called a prion in the cattle’s brain that interferes with brain functioning and gradually spreads within the brain.
  • Does BSE affect humans? Yes. The disease in man is called “new variant CJD” or variant Creutzfeldt Jakob disease. There have been approximately 150 people affected, most from the United Kingdom where BSE originated. All those afflicted with vCJD had the same genetic structure. This appears to indicate that those who do not carry this specific genetic makeup may have increased resistance to the disease.
  • How is it transmitted? The transmission from cattle to humans comes from humans eating infected tissues or contaminated meat products. BSE was amplified in U.K. cattle by feeding rendered meat and bone meal from infected, slaughtered cattle to non-infected, live cattle. The cattle tissues that are infective are brain, spinal cord and the retina of the eye. These tissues may contaminate other non-infected tissues through mishandling or mixing.
  • What is the incubation period? The incubation period in cattle is usually 2 1/2 to 6 years, so the peak of disease occurs in cattle 4-5 years old. In man, the incubation period is thought to be 8 to 10 years, but could be twice that long or longer.
  • Why is age at slaughter an important consideration in regard to risk of BSE? Because of the long incubation period, infected cattle rarely have been found at less than 30 months of age. Approximately 80 percent of the cattle slaughtered in the U.S. are under 30 months old and would not be potential transmitters, even if the disease were present in this country. Most cattle are slaughtered at 12-18 months of age.
  • Why is the concern for BSE different than that of other pathogens in regard to food safety? The protein that causes BSE is not destroyed by the usual cooking methods that would control bacterial or viral foodborne illnesses. Although the protein does not multiply and increase in numbers during storage, it must be kept completely out of the food supply.
  • Should I stop serving beef to my family? Beef remains an economical source of valuable nutrients, and the risk of buying beef containing BSE is extremely low to nonexistent. Most roasts and steaks found in stores are from young animals that are not potential problems. Controls are in place for handling meat from older animals.
  • What protective measures have been implemented to maximize food safety? Importing live cattle or ruminant animal products has long been prohibited from countries that have BSE. Feeding meat and bone meal from cattle back to cattle has been prohibited since 1997. Brain tissue has been tested for many years on cattle that are most likely to have BSE, especially those showing impaired brain function. More than 20,000 cattle were tested in 2003 and that is how the one case was found. More testing will now be required. Disabled cattle are now prohibited from entering the human food supply. Tissues at risk of contaminating are now prohibited for human food consumption. Butchering methods are being modified in older animals to not include the backbone. This will avoid contamination from the spinal cord. A new system of animal identification will be implemented. This will provide information if an animal tests positive or is even a suspected BSE case. The animal can then be traced to its farm or ranch of origin. Then other infected animals can be prevented from entering the food market.
  • Most of the information and regulations have come nationally from the USDA and FDA. What about cattle slaughtered in Utah? Utah has a meat inspection system equal in requirements to the USDA national system.
  • What can I do, as a consumer, to protect myself and my family? Become informed. Ask questions about procedures or issues you don’t understand. Your local County Extension office can help you find information. If you become aware of actual or potential violations in the feeding or marketing system, contact the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food to report your concern. Realize, also, that this is a complex topic, and some media reports may have details omitted. Often those details would further explain why some actions were or were not taken.

Posted on 16 Nov 2006

Charlotte Brennand
Food Safety Specialist
Clell Bagley
Extension vetrinarian
DeeVon Bailey
Extension Economist, Agricultural Program Leader
Ruby Ward
Regional Economics Specialist
Dale Zobell
Beef Specialist

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