Beefer Madness: Explaining Mad Cow Disease


So I’ve been wondering about Mad Cow Disease (or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy if you speak science) for a while. Before doing some (very) basic research for this post I never really took seriously as a disease. I mean, I knew that there were reasons to be afraid of it but beyond that I didn’t now much about it. The most exposure to Mad Cow that I got was in my all time favorite TV show, Boston Legal. Their characterization, however, was exclusively humor-based and, as it turns out, Mad Cow is pretty terrifying. I don’t really know why it was hard for me to take mad cow so seriously. Maybe it’s because it’s not so much a publicized problem in the US as it is in England. Maybe it’s because cows are innately funny animals;  harmless creatures who have no purpose on this planet other than to give us beef, milk, and cheese.

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All I see is a potential mecca of cheese…

Whatever the reason, I didn’t give mad cow much thought. It wasn’t until the news of someone finding an infected cow in California that it even crossed my mind to look into it. When I found out that South Korea (that would be the “good one” for you geographically challenged and politically incorrect folks) and Indonesia almost immediately banned the importation of US beef after the discovery of the infected cow I thought: “huh… this might be important”.

So Mad Cow, as it turns out, is pretty terrible. It’s a disease that attacks the brain and it is always fatal. There is a human version of this disease called  Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (or CJD) which happens to also be terrible in the exact same way. In the case of cows with Mad Cow, it causes them to avoid the rest of the heard, become agitated and eventually lose control of their bodily functions. When an infected cow can no longer stand on its own, it’s called a downer cow. With CJD, people develop a rapidly progressing case of dementia, get hallucinations, suffer memory loss and then move onto impaired speech and loss of bodily function. It is always fatal to people as well, with a 15% chance of surviving for two years. As far as I could tell, there is no difference between the effects of Mad Cow on a person and CJD. It kills you the same way.

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mmmm… rapidly progressing meat-death

Just to be clear, Mad Cow and CJD are not the exact same thing. CJD can be hereditary or can be passed on from person to person. Blood transfusions is one way you’d be able to contract CJD, cannibalism is another if you’re Korowai (just putting that out there, you guys… you know chicken is a thing, right?).  When someone is suspected of “getting mad cow” it is called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD). One thing that should be noted is that hospitals in America DO NOT test for the source of CJD. We don’t know if cases of it stem from genetics or diet so there’s no data that tells us if no one or a few Americans have been affected by Mad Cow.

The protein responsible for passing mad cow and CJD is mainly found in the brain and spinal fluid. But it can be found throughout the cow itself, this includes the blood of the cow. People get vCJD from eating beef that comes from infected cows. The place with the highest rate of infection is in the United Kingdom where there have been less than 300 reported cases of a human ever getting infected. Even though the number is low, the fact that this is totally a really freaky horrible way to die is enough for most countries to test pretty carefully for it.

Just FYI, America is not one of those countries.
 
65 nations in the world currently ban American beef because they think our standards to detecting mad cow are too lenient. Japan no longer bans the import of US beef and that move has brought criticism of their government by Japanese consumer groups.
 
Because mad cow is passed from cow to cow through blood and other parts, it is illegal to feed them processed scrap from slaughterhouses. This used to be a common practice in the United Kingdom and was the reason why mad cow was such a huge problem there. We never really did that in America and the practice has been banned here entirely. Still, beef byproducts ARE fed to pigs and chickens and it is also legal to feed cows the byproducts of pigs and chickens.
 
So basically, cows can eat chicken and pig byproducts and vice versa, but cow cannot eat cow byproducts. Simple. Also: kinda gross.
 
There have been only a couple of cases where mad cow has been discovered in the US. The first one was in 2003 in Washington. Before that it’s been reported that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) had then ben very, very lax in making sure there was conformance to the rules and regulations that prevented the spread of mad cow. Supposedly, the beef industry is totally following the regulations now but there are still reasons to suspect some shady dealings.
 
In 2008 the USDA had to recall beef that was supplied by the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company because it was discovered that they were using electric cattle prods to force downer cows into slaughter. 143 million pounds of beef were affected by this recall. This was a case where the focus was on animal cruelty and not necessarily based on cases of confirmed mad cow disease probably because there was no way to check for it after the meat had been sent to the stores. During the trial, however, the president of the company did admit that sick cows were sent to slaughter and sold to the public… so there’s that.
 
Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company, by the way, is out of business.
 

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 Pictured: The inspiration for every CEO Bad Guy in every movie ever…
 
Interestingly enough, Creekstone Farms sued the FDA for preventing them from using testing kits on all of their cows. The District of Columbia Court of Appeals essentially found that it was the government’s job to test the cows and the use of these testing kits should be regulated by the USDA. So based on this case, farms and ranches aren’t allowed to test their own cows for Mad Cow. Smaller industries suspect the main reason that the USDA fought so hard to prevent people from testing their own cows was because of pressure from the large industrial-scale ranches who didn’t want to have to compete with the smaller farms who could test each cow.
 
Bloomberg Business Week Reported in a recent article that the USDA tests less than 0.1 percent of the entire US cattle heard for mad cow, that’s about 40,000 cows a year.
So yeah, whether or not it’s reasonable to be a little concerned, it still makes me wonder whether or not my beef is all that safe to eat.
 
Still, there are things that we can do to minimize our risk. One thing I found interesting that some countries report a zero infection rate for mad cow. Brazil, Argentina, Australia, Uruguay and New Zealand apparently produce these disease free cows and one thing these countries have in common is that their cows mostly feed on grass in open pastures. Elsewhere, US included, cows are fed a diet of soy, corn, as well as possibly some other crap. Grass is the natural food of the cow, but soy is cheaper. Cows fed a diet of soy oftentimes have to be supplemented with vitamins and antibiotics in order to prevent illness and malnutrition.
 
So it seems the best thing we can for ourselves do is buy cows that are grass-fed and raised open pastures. It’s generally more expensive but after this I think I’d be willing to eat less beef knowing that the beef I’m eating is probably better for me. Of course, we can also demand that our government get it together and test our cows more, but I suppose it’s pretty hard to them to hear with all that money that the big food industries are shoving into their ears. You can decide whether or not it’s important enough to get angry about.
 
Me? Well, let me just say that Mad Cow isn’t exactly funny for me anymore.
 
Special Thanks To Cara Locklin for making sure my science was legit.
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