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Mad cow disease: Where are we now?

A local perspective     Send a link to a friend

By John Fulton

[JAN. 9, 2004]  A landmark agricultural event has taken place in the United States. That is the discovery of a cow that has tested positive to BSE, bovine spongiform encephalopathy. While there was an immediate reaction that was more knee-jerk than anything else, we each have to study the situation and act according to our own feelings.

The first thing to do is to assess the situation. The situation is that one cow that tested positive was found in Washington State. This cow was a "downer," meaning it was crippled in some way, and was taken to be killed at a small kill facility. The facility did what it was supposed to do, in that it sent samples for testing on a downer cow. The processing had begun on the meat, and meat and byproducts were sent out of the kill facility but not distributed for public consumption.

What is BSE? BSE is a disease that degenerates the central nervous system of cattle. This means their coordination is affected, along with changes in temperament (hence the name mad cow disease). It is caused by a prion, an abnormal form of a normal protein. In naturally occurring cases, this prion has been found only in the brain, spinal cord and in the retina of the eye. In artificially infected cattle, it has also been found in bone marrow and a few other locations.

BSE is one of a family of TSEs. The "B" stands for "bovine" (cattle). Other related diseases include scrapie in sheep and goats, TME in mink, FSE in cats, chronic wasting disease in deer and elk, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans (along with a few others for humans). Of the human diseases, the variant Creutzfelt-Jakob disease is the only one that could have a link with BSE.

Several people have asked if they should quit eating beef. My answer is, "Not if you like beef." If you have concerns about safety of beef, or other meats, there are a few things you can do to put your fears to rest.


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First, you can know where your beef came from. You can purchase beef direct from a local farmer, have it processed in a local facility and stored in your freezer. That way you can find out how old the animal was (it generally takes two to eight years for BSE to incubate), know what the feeding program included and how the animal was cared for. Most local locker plants have locally purchased animals that they process for resale as well. There are some specialty beef programs in Illinois that provide a lot of security in the above items. Check with local retailers or lockers to get the type of security you desire.

Second, if you are really concerned, you can avoid the suspicious parts of beef. The parts to avoid are brain tissue, spinal tissue and retinas. The actual meat cuts should cause no problem whatsoever. If you are really worried about ground beef, buy ground chuck, for example. One source said the biggest effect would be not eating that little pocket on top of a T-bone steak.

Third, keep things in perspective. The United States has had one positive cow. The cow is gone, and all the meat and rendered products have been withheld. The home Canadian herd has been identified. The U.S. offspring and those in close contact are being tested and destroyed.

Once again, no one wants to take an unnecessary risk -- and you shouldn't. Don't eat the brain and organ meats (most haven't done that for quite a while anyway). Outside of that, the likelihood of being hurt in the parking lot of a grocery store is much greater than having problems from anything you buy inside.

[John Fulton, local unit leader,
University of Illinois Extension]

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