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Mad Cow Disease in United States


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Mad Cow Disease or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) is a brain disease of cattle first identified in the United Kingdom (UK) in the mid 1980s. BSE is part of a group of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs). All of these diseases are characterized by distinctive changes in the brain, abnormal behavior and death.


What causes Mad Cow Disease (BSE)?

It is thought that this disease is caused and spread by an abnormal form of a protein called a "prion". The abnormal protein triggers a chain-reaction causing other proteins in the brain to change to the abnormal form. Eventually these abnormal proteins accumulate in the brain leading to the development of abnormal behavior and eventually death.


How do cattle get Mad Cow Disease (BSE)?

When cattle are slaughtered, portions of the animal not destined for human consumption may be used to produce a protein-rich byproduct that may be mixed with grain and fed back to livestock as feed. In the UK where the disease was first identified, it is thought that these byproducts may have contained the prion protein, and that cattle became infected by consuming feed containing prion-contaminated animal protein. It is for this reason that the feeding of animal proteins derived from cattle back to cattle has been banned in the US.


Mad Cow Disease in the United States

As of January 2005, five BSE-infected cattle have been identified in North America. The first was in 1993, involving an animal born in Britain. The second was reported in Canada on May 20, 2003. It occurred in a single older cow that may have contracted the disease from contaminated feed in earlier years. The animal was destroyed after being declared unfit for consumption. The United States also issued a temporary ban on all Canadian beef.


On December 23, 2003, the first case of BSE in the United States was found in a single Holstein cow in Mabton, Washington, although trace-backs later revealed that this cow originated from a Canadian herd. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman called the discovery "a clear indication that our surveillance and detection program is working." However, the United States tested only 20,526 cows in 2003 out of the roughly 35 million slaughtered. Current tests reveal the presence of misshaped prions when they are abundant, but it is not known how far the disease must progress in an individual to transmit it to others. Therefore, it is possible that even among those cattle that are tested and classified as negative, a proportion nevertheless may be contagious. As a result, U.S. authorities have very little idea of how many American beef cattle might have the disease.


The government has banned the use of "downer cows" for human consumption. While the Washington cow that tested positive for BSE was reportedly unable to stand, veterinarians say the condition was unrelated to BSE. Furthermore, there is some dispute as to whether the cow was a downer or not. Therefore it is not clear how effective the ban is in reducing the number of infected cattle consumed. Only 200,000 cows slaughtered in 2003 were downers.


The meat of the BSE-positive cow went to market, but some of it was successfully recalled before it was sold to consumers. U.S. authorities called for a switch to the testing procedure that is used in the United Kingdom, which yields its results in one day. Until the switch, U.S. surveillance relied on a test that gave results only after two weeks, after which time the meat from an animal usually has all been sold.


Shortly after the U.S. discovery of BSE in 2003, Japan and South Korea instituted temporary bans on the import of U.S. beef until the authorities can be assured of its safety. Since Japan and South Korea are the first- and third-largest importers of US beef, respectively, the economic impact of their bans is significant both for American cattle ranchers and for Japanese and Korean beef consumers. Notwithstanding, Japanese beef exports, chiefly the expensive wagyu, have been banned in the United States since Japan experienced its first case of BSE in January 2001.


Japan lifted its ban on US beef in December 2005. It was, however, quick to reinstate the ban. Brooklyn-based Atlantic Veal & Lamb inspectors failed to notice there was bone material included in a shipment of veal to Japan. Japanese inspectors found material from cattle backbone in three of 41 boxes in an 858-pound shipment of beef from Atlantic Veal & Lamb.


No case of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease has occurred in North America so far, except among those who have traveled to Europe.


On June 10, 2005, the USDA reported a possible case of BSE in the United States. Tests carried out at the USDA laboratory in Ames, Iowa indicated the presence of BSE, and after subsequent confirmation from the Weybridge Veterinary Laboratory in the United Kingdom, the USDA acknowledged the second case of BSE on June 24. Trace-backs revealed that this cow originated from a herd in Texas, making it the first BSE cow native to the United States.


On March 13, 2006, the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed that a 10-year-old, nonambulatory cow in Alabama tested positive for BSE. Despite this the government still plans to scale back testing of animals from about 1000 to 110 daily. The USDA and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association have repeatedly insisted that the testing in place is sufficient.

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