Thursday, April 06, 2006

Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy - Mad Cow Disease

BSE is a slow, degenerative disease that affects the central nervous system of cattle. Most scientist think it is caused by an infectious protein - a prion. BSE is similar Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease which infects humans. 155 persons worldwide have gotten a variant form of Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease after consuming BSE infected meat. BSE was first found in cattle in 1986 in the UK. How the disease came to be in cattle is a mystery, but it most likely happened when the cattle were fed food contaminated with scrapie infected sheep meat and bone meal. Scrapie is a disease in sheep caused by infection with a prion similar to BSE.

Much more information on BSE can be found here and here. More information on prions can be found here and here. Technical information on the structure of the prion protein can be found here.

So how does this topic fit in with my usual anti-Bush administration rant? Well, in the USA the only cattle that are tested for BSE are those that die on the farm, can't walk or are obviously sick. This amounts to 1% of the 35 million cows slaughtered in the USA every year. Creekstone Farms, a small slaughterhouse in Kansas, spent $500,000 to build its own BSE testing lab so it could test every cow that it slaughters for BSE. The problem lies with the USDA. They control the sale of BSE testing kits and they won't provide enough kits so that Creekstone can test every cow. USDA claims that testing 1% of the slaughtered cattle is statistically sufficient to detect BSE. Japan, where Creekstone sold much of its high quality, antibiotic-free, angus beef, requires that all cattle be tested before beef can be imported.

So the question is - why is the USDA opposed to testing all cattle slaughtered in the USA for BSE? Of course the answer is the rest of the meat-packing industry opposes it so of course our government has to oppose it.

From todays NYT:

The fear is that broad testing may reveal a higher rate of infection and destroy consumer confidence, with a devastating impact on the cattle market. Which leaves us where we are now: relying on what we don't know to make us feel safe.

1 comment:

Sara said...

Hearing things like this doesn't make me want to come back to the states, lol. I'm driving to Wales tomorrow - keep your eye for headlines that say something like, "crazy Americans drove all the way to Wales on the 'wrong' side of the road" LOL