There is little risk of mad cow disease turning up in American cattle despite the spread of the illness in Europe and Japan, according to a Harvard University study. Harvard researchers briefed Congress about the chance of mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), infecting U.S. livestock. The disease, for which there is no known cure, destroys an animal?s brain and may spread to humans who eat tainted meat. The study concluded that ?the risk of an introduction (of mad cow disease) was next to nothing.?

Since the first outbreak in the mid-1980s in Britain, mad cow disease has spread to more than a dozen European countries and Japan. U.S. government agencies have imposed import bans on European animals, meat and human blood since the British outbreak. So far, no cases of mad cow disease have been reported in the United States. The human version of the disease, known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), which is transmitted by infected meat and bone meal, has been linked to the deaths of more than 100 people in Europe.

Scientists believe the brain-wasting disease spreads among cattle when the spinal cord and brains of affected livestock are ground up for use in animal feed. The U.S. has banned such livestock feed since 1997. The USDA is expected to propose banning U.S. meat processors from using cattle parts susceptible to mad cow disease in certain meat processing systems. Currently, some processors use high-speed equipment to extract edible tissue from bones, which sometimes pulls tiny amounts of spinal columns and neck bones from cattle into the meat.

An outbreak of mad cow disease in the United States would be devastating to the $100 billion livestock industry. ?Mad cow disease in the U.S. would have a very detrimental effect,? says Caroline DeWaal, food director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. ?The discovery of even one case in the cattle population could really put people off eating beef for quite some time.?

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