How Now, Mad Cow?

“So what does this mean?” has been the common theme around the e-mails I’ve gotten surrounding the recent BSE announcement. For me, the answer has been the same since it the first time BSE was uncovered here in the state of Washington back in December of 2003.

First, don’t panic. The hard cold reality is that, in the short term, these announcements affect the cattle industry more than they will affect the typical beef consumer. As of this writing, there’s simply no evidence that a BSE infected cow has made it into the food supply. In order to make an educated decision about food purchases, it’s best to have as much evidence as possible. This is where the USDA and the cattle industry are failing and this is the part of the story that everyone covering Mad Cow is ignoring, avoiding or being distracted away from.

Some quick facts: According to a Congressional Research Service Report for Congress about Animal Rendering, America slaughters 35.5 million heads of cattle annually. Now consider that the USDA has tested approximately 383,932 cattle for BSE over the past 52 weeks. That gives us a statistical sampling of just over 1%, or 1 in every 100 slaughtered cattle is tested for BSE.

The question that comes to my mind is the following: Is 1% of the cattle population enough of a statistical sample to provide enough evidence on whether we have a problem or not? So far, no one has been able to provide me an answer.

Now consider the following: Only high risk cattle is tested. According to the USDA’s own site, the program is designed to collect the majority of samples from the following categories:

  • Nonambulatory cattle
  • Cattle exhibiting signs of a central nervous system disorder
  • Cattle exhibiting other signs that may be associated with BSE, such as emaciation or injury
  • Dead cattle.

This is all well and good, but the tests ignore the fact that BSE may take years between the initial transmission into the cattle to the time that the cattle shows outward signs of having the disease.

Let’s also keep in mind that the rapid test being used is controversial in of itself. In the book “The Pathological Protein: Mad Cow, Chronic Wasting, and Other Deadly Prion Diseases”, Philip Yam writes that Today’s validated tests–immunohistochemistry and the “rapid” tests (Western blots and ELISA) only consistently detect disease in older animals. Of the 185,000 cases reported worldwide by the end of 2003, only about two dozen BSE animals under 30 months of age have ever been detected, none younger than 20 months. In short, the test that the United States is using cannot effectively determine if younger cattle have BSE or not.

What this means is that there’s a high probability that we have no idea of how prevalent BSE is within our beef supply.

There are economic reasons why the American Beef industry would be adverse to the idea of actually finding out how much BSE is within our food supply. According an Article in the Wugust 2001 Agricultural Outlook (.pdf), BSE in the UK had cost their economy roughly $5.8 billion dollars. If BSE were to be discovered here on the scale the the UK had, it would cost us even more.

But what if BSE is already in the supply? How much should we worry? It was only recently (within the past ten years) that anecdotal evidence has connected Mad Cow with variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD). But consider these statistics: There have been 183,803 cases of BSE reported in the United Kingdom. There have been, as of December 2004, only 145 cases of vCJD documented. There’s possibly more unreported, as there’s been some talk that some cases of Alzheimer’s Disease may actually be vCJD, but there’s been no studies completed that validate this hypothesis.

So back to the main question: What does this mean?

It means that the USDA needs to get serious about determining the extent of BSE in our cattle supply. Because by trying to spin results and by playing loose with statistics, they leave an ever widening window that allows BSE to propagate within our supply. The more that BSE increases, the higher the risk of health to the citizens of this country and the higher the financial risk to the cattle industry.

On a personal level, assess your own risk to BSE. There are some basic things you can do – avoid mass processed ground beef (found at your grocery store), get your meat from a butcher rather than the grocery store, and grind your own beef at home.

As for myself? I already purchase my beef from trusted sources, so I’m not changing any of my behaviors.

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