Since there has been more news about Mad Cow Disease lately, I’ve been concerned about my loved ones getting the illness. Can you help me understand this issue?
Mad Cow Disease is the common name for Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis or BSE. In 2001, a herd of 80 cattle was imported into the United States (U. S.) from Canada. On December 9, 2003, at least one cow of that herd was slaughtered at a plant in Mabton, Washington. Officially, the cow was classified as nonambulatory, commonly called a downer, and therefore samples of its brain were examined by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). On December 23, a diagnosis of BSE was made confirmed two days later at the BSE International Reference Laboratory in England.
BSE is a degenerative neurological disorder that affects the central nervous system of adult cattle, leading to death. BSE is caused by a prion, which is an infectious protein. The concern for humans is that the prion that causes BSE in cattle can be transmitted to humans when they eat infected meat. In humans, the disease is called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD). The median age for people to come down with the symptoms of vCJD is 28 years. It is a fatal, rapidly progressive, degenerative disease of the central nervous system, causing psychiatric symptoms such as anxiety, hallucinations, and neurological symptoms including tremors, muscle weakness, and inability to walk.
There are other types of CJD. One type, called sporadic CJD, was not thought to be caused by eating BSE-infected meat. A recent study has shown that there is increasing evidence that sporadic CJD can also be caused by Mad Cow meat ingestion. This could potentially raise the numbers of known infected cases in the U. S.
There are several points at which this incidence of infection has the potential to affect the local and greater communities. The first, and most obvious, is the question of whether or not products from the infected cow reached the consumer. Confusingly, and perhaps misleadingly, the FDA states that the infected meat was traced and was removed from the market. This appears to suggest that the meat never made it to the consumer, yet it did.
The diseased cow was slaughtered December 9, and BSE was not detected until December 23—after the meat went to market. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) states that those meat products were distributed to various parts of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, and California. The CDC further states that the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service “continues to verify the distribution and control of all recalled products.” As of February 1, 2004, only 29 of the original 80 head of cattle exported from Canada have been located. One family in Mercer Island, Washington, has learned that the hamburger they mixed into their spaghetti dinner on December 21, 2003, was part of the lots that were later recalled. “I know the odds that any of us will get sick are slim,” said Brian Weinstein, father and husband, “but my family’s risk is greater than anyone else’s in the U. S. because we actually ate it.”
In the U. S., is the Weinstein family really the only family at greater risk? Proponents of the U. S. beef industry and the efficiency of the USDA often cite the Harvard study to back up their beliefs. The USDA commissioned Harvard to evaluate the U. S. regulatory measures for prevention of BSE infection. The Harvard study concluded that “BSE is extremely unlikely to become established in the U. S. . . . [and] only a small amount of potentially infective tissues would likely reach the human food supply.”
This information sounds impressive, yet records show that in Washington State, where the infected cow was found, no commercial cattle were tested for BSE through the entire first seven months of 2003. In fact, USDA records show that tests are conducted at fewer than 100 of the 700 U. S. slaughterhouses. Fewer than 30,000 of the approximately 300 million cattle slaughtered in the U. S. in the past nine years were tested.
One of the reasons why testing is not done more frequently is because the U. S. uses tests that take days to weeks to provide results. Japan and Europe use tests that take only hours, which would enable tainted meat to never reach the market. Dr. Ron DeHaven, the USDA’s chief veterinarian, states that the U. S. system is meant only as a “surveillance system, not a food-safety test,” and was not intended to keep diseased meat from the consumer.
A typical four-ounce hamburger contains the meat and fat of between 50 and 100 cattle. This means that the average American, who consumes two hamburgers every week, ingests parts of up to 10,400 cattle every year. With the inadequate testing in the U. S., the likelihood of eating infected meat—for meat-eaters—is very high.
Weak vCJD Screening
The occurrence rate of vCJD was previously thought to be 1 in 1,000,000. However, in a U. S. study, autopsies of humans diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease showed that 5.5 percent of them were actually infected with vCJD. The CJD surveillance unit in Britain states that “the differential diagnosis . . . is a potentially wide one and it may be difficult or impossible to make a diagnosis of vCJD in the early stages of illness.”
A Compromised USDA
According to Eric Schlosser, editor of The New York Times, the USDA has a dual and conflicting charge, and that is to 1) guarantee that U. S. meat is safe for consumers, and 2) in behalf of producers, to promote the sale of meat. Perhaps that is why their own literature contains several misleading statements, such as the preceding comment about infected meat being removed from the marketplace. Another example of these types of inconsistencies is again found in their Commonly Asked Questions online fact sheet. The FDA states that certain rendered animal products are processed with heat “which may further minimize any risk of infectivity.” Two paragraphs later they state that the prions that cause BSE are resistant to heat. Tested in laboratories, these infectious proteins cannot be destroyed with 1000° Fahrenheit heat.
A Washington State cow, after slaughter and distribution, was discovered to be infected with BSE, commonly known as Mad Cow Disease. While other countries, notably Great Britain, have experience with this disease and its human counterpart, vCJD, this event is thought to be the first known case in the U. S. However, poor practices including insufficient BSE testing, ineffective tracking methods, and weak vCJD screening abilities, make it impossible to know the true extent of the diseases.
If we follow God’s laws of health, we will be protected from many illnesses, such as CJD. However, it is also our duty to let our light shine and continue to help others understand what risks they are taking by going against the laws of health.
Sheryle Beaudry, a certified teletriage nurse, writes from Estacada, Oregon where she lives with her husband and twin daughters. She may be contacted by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org. If there is a health-related question you would like answered in LandMarks, please e-mail your question to: email@example.com, or mail it to: LandMarks, Steps to Life, P. O. Box 782828, Wichita, KS 67278.