Europe is in a panic over Mad Cow Disease, to the point that long-time meat eaters have become vegetarians and zookeepers in Germany are surreptitiously slaughtering zoo animals for food.
In humans the mad cow prion produces Kreutzfield-Jacob Syndrome. It’s a horrible way to die. First you have moodswings, then numbness and hallucinations. Next, it’s uncontrollable body movements, then a dementia that mimicsAlzheimer’s, except that it can strike people who are still young.
Mad Cow, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), started infecting British cattle in the mid-80’s. In theU.S. and Canada, it’s so far only been found as a naturally occurring disease in deer and elk. The cause in Britain wasthe practice of using cattle feed made of ground-up cattle parts, forcing vegetarian bovines to become carnivores. Thisunnatural tampering with nature was done by major food companies in order to save money.
The disease isn’t spread by a virus or bacteria, but by protein molecules called prions, which, until recently, couldnot be detected in blood or tissue. The meat itself still cannot be tested for the disease. Also, prions are not killedby cooking or irradiating meat, the way that bacteria are. Scientists think it’s unlikely that the disease can betransmitted from one person to another. The only way Mad Cow is discovered is when the infected cow, or human, develops symptoms. This means that when it first enters the food supply, it will always cause a few deaths before being detected. Some researchers think that the people who get the disease may have a genetic predisposition for it.
Scientists aren’t sure how it crossed the species barrier from animals to humans, but the first cases appeared in peoplein 1995. The human version, called Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (VCJD), has killed over 80 people in England since 1995.Now it has been found in Europe, although so far, there have only been a few deaths in France and Ireland. It isprobably caused by eating beef containing brain or spinal tissue from mad cows, usually in the form of ground beef orsausage. Ground-up animals parts are also found in some protein supplements sold in health food stores.
The U.S. is taking precautions to make sure that it doesn’t happen here. The FDA has said that anyone who lived inBritain for 6 months between 1980 and 1996 cannot donate blood. Now they’ve ruled that if you’ve lived in France,Portugal or Ireland for a total of 10 years since 1980, you also should not give blood.
One of the reasons that Mad Cow has not yet arrived in the U.S. is that we banned imports of British goats and sheep inthe 1950s, because they had a similar disease called scrapie. It turns out the scrapie is harmless to both humans andcattle, even when infected sheep tissues are injected directly into a cow’s brain. But scientists believe that wheninfected sheep carcasses were ground up for British cattle feed, they somehow managed to infect cows with BSE, a variant of scrapie. There is disagreement among researchers about whether this was the origin of Mad Cow Disease.
“Even if you do eat beef from an infected cow,” says Michael Scott, a molecular biologist at the University ofCalifornia, “you have a very low risk of contracting VCJD.” Fast food hamburgers are especially risky, however, becauseof the way the meat is manufactured. The meat from many different animals is ground up together, increasing the riskthat one of the animals may be infected.
Now a test for Mad Cow Disease, that gives results in less than 24 hours, has been developed in France. In the past,mice were injected with tissue from cow brains, but it could take up to 2 years for them to develop the disease, so thetest wasn’t of much use. The new test is based on the detection of the BSE prion “that is the only known molecularmarker for BSE,” says Dr. Jean-Phillip Deslys.
The European Union wants to test all cattle that are older than 30 months and thus may have been fed contaminated feed. The new test “can be used in slaughterhouses and testers will have results in five hours-in a slaughterhouse you need to have a result in 24 hours so as not to delay the processing and treatments of the carcasses,” said Deslys. “This test allows the targeted elimination of cattle.”
In 1996, the U.S. livestock industry voluntarily banned sheep and certain other animal parts from being used as aprotein supplement in U.S. feed. The following year, the FDA banned any ground-up parts from cows, sheep, goats, deer orelk from being included in feed meant for cows, sheep or goats. Chickens and pigs can still be give this type of feed,however, meaning that new problems may be on the way. Also, it is still legal to feed cattle blood to cattle, despitethe fact that some scientists think the BSE prion can be transmitted through the blood, which is the reason that somehuman blood donations have been prohibited.
Now there is evidence that a U.S. mill violated FDA rules and produced cattle feed containing meat and bone meal fromother cattle. About 1,200 cows that were given this feed have been quarantined in Texas, until they can be tested. “Itwas an inadvertent thing and they caught it right away,” says Burt Rutherford of the Texas Cattle Feeders Association.This is the first time that cattle have been quarantined in the U.S. for this reason, but it’s unlikely to be the last.FDA inspectors have found that many companies are not following their guidelines and are producing dangerous cattlefeed.
Linda Detwiler, of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, says there was no danger of BSE in the U.S. cattle because the sourceof the meat-and-bone meal was other U.S. cattle, which have never been found to have Mad Cow Disease. “There is noevidence that BSE would be involved in this situation at all,” she said.
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association organized a private meeting with industry representatives, the FDA and theAgriculture Department. “We decided that, given the situation in Europe, we wanted to bring all the key players togetherto achieve 100-percent compliance with the FDA feed prohibitions,” says Gary Weber of the rancher’s group.
“We’re prepared to go to the meeting and let them know we are doing or are willing to do our part to ensure that wedon’t get BSE into this country,” says Tom Cook, president of the National Renderers Association. “We want the FDA toenforce the feed ban and take what resources it needs to make sure it is enforced.”
But the FDA says that hundreds of animal feed producers are violating the rules and that they will begin seizing suspectfeed, as well as shutting down companies and prosecuting the owners. Right now, they are sending out warning letters.
The FDA has pledged that all feed mills will be inspected. So far, they have found that a large percentage of the millsdid not put labels on their feed, notifying ranchers that it should not be fed to cattle, and many had no way to preventmixing this feed with feed destined for cattle ranches.
Europe’s crisis “is not a result of them not having adequate regulations in place-it was a problem of enforcement,” saysDr. Stephen Sundlof of the FDA. “And we don’t want to end up like that.”
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