Beef has been getting battered in the news recently. Last month the use of an ammonia treated slaughterhouse waste called pink slime as beef filler was a PR nightmare for the beef industry. This week, a case of mad cow disease uncovered in California once again highlighted the health risks of eating cattle.
Mad cow rises again
The Department of Agriculture announced on April 24 that a case of mad cow disease was found at a California dairy farm. Mad cow disease, known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is a fatal infection in cattle that degenerates the animal’s brain and spinal cord.
The USDA described the case as a random mutation and said there was no danger meat tainted with bovine spongiform encephalopathy would enter the food chain. The diseased cow was found at a rendering plant that processes sick animals into ingredients for products like soap and glue.
In the 1990’s, an outbreak of mad cow disease in Britain led to the eradication of English cattle herds. This time around, the only repercussions of the discovery so far have been a suspension of U.S. beef sales by two major South Korean retailers. South Korea is the world’s fourth-largest importer of U.S. beef.
Fatal prions in tainted meat
In humans, mad cow disease is called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Humans have contracted mad cow disease by eating tainted processed meats. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease symptoms include blurred vision, disorientation, hallucinations, loss of motor control and speech impairment. An abnormal protein known as a prion that lodges in brain and spinal tissue causes both variants of the disease. There is no treatment for the ensuing rapid brain degeneration that is fatal within a few months.
History of mad cow disease
Bovine spongiform encephalopathy was first diagnosed in the U.K. in the 1980’s. Officials say the disease likely emerged from cattle feed that contained ground-up infected animal parts. An outbreak of mad cow disease in English cattle peaked in January 1993 at nearly 1,000 new cases a week. In the U.S., cow brains and spinal tissue are banned in cattle feed.
In North America 22 cases have been detected through 2011. The diseased California cow was the fourth case discovered in the U.S. According to the USDA, the fact that the sick cow was detected proves U.S. and international surveillance systems are working. In 2011, 29 cases of made cow disease were detected worldwide, a 99 percent reduction since a peak of 37,311 cases in 1992.
How risky is that burger?
But luck may have had something to do with the latest detection. The disease was only discovered when the California rendering plant selected the cow for random sampling. The USDA beef surveillance system tests about 40,000 cattle a year for bovine spongiform encephalopathy. According to the agency, about 35 million cattle are slaughtered every year.
With those odds, eating a hamburger can seem pretty risky.