Question of the Week
July 12, 2004


Mad cow disease (BSE) has been in the news the past few weeks.

What is BSE?

"Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs) are a family of diseases of humans and animals characterized by spongy degeneration of the brain with severe and fatal neurological signs and symptoms. In animals, scrapie is a common disease in sheep and goats. Mink and North American mule deer and elk can contract TSEs. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) is also a TSE, affecting a number of species (cattle, human, cats, some types of animals in 300 settings). BSE is a transmissible, neuro-degenerative fatal brain disease of cattle. The disease has a long incubation period of 4-5 years and it is fatal for cattle within weeks to months of its onset. The nature of the BSE agent is still being debated. Strong evidence currently available supports the theory that the agent is composed largely, if not entirely, of a self-replicating protein, referred to as a prion. It is transmitted through the consumption of BSE-contaminated meat and bone meal supplements in cattle feed."

Is there BSE in the United States?

On July 12, 2004, no positive or inconclusive test results were reported.
As of July 12, 2004, 15,773 tests had been conducted since June 1, 2004. Two tests have come back inconclusive, only to be found negative after further testing.

Both inconclusive tests have since come back negative. After the first inconclusive test made the news, this follow-up information was provided:

"Tests negative on feared mad cow case
Washington (AP) -- No sign of mad cow disease was found in an animal singled out in preliminary screening last week and then subjected to a follow-up chemical test, the Agriculture Department said Wednesday.... 'The USDA remains confident in the safety of America's food supply,' said John Clifford, deputy administrator of the department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Clifford said no meat from the two animals had entered the food supply. He said tests by the federal laboratory at Ames, Iowa, on tissue from the first animal were negative... The preliminary test last Friday was the first time in 8,587 such screenings to come back with 'inconclusive' results, raising the possibility of a mad cow disease infection. The screenings began June 1. The same preliminary result was announced Tuesday on a second animal. There has been only one case of mad cow disease -- bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE -- in the United States. A sick Canadian-born Holstein was discovered on a farm in Mabton, Washington, in December."

While only once case of BSE has been reported in the United States (last December). Fear of the disease in this country has prompted action on the part of the Food and Drug Administration. Just last week:

"July 10, 2004
The government told cosmetics makers Friday they can no longer use brain and spinal cord tissue from older cattle in lipstick, hair sprays and other products. The new Food and Drug Administration regulations come in the wake of the first U.S. case of mad cow disease last December. Mad cow -- also known as BSE -- causes the brains of affected animals to waste away and can kill humans .... Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest said it's virtually impossible for a consumer to know from the label whether a banned product is in cosmetics. The agency ought to put out lists of products containing bovine-derived material 'so people can throw out old cosmetics and purchase new ones that are subject to this requirement,' she said."

Not only is it almost impossible to know what ingredients have gone into the cosmetics one finds at the make-up counter, it is also difficult to know what was fed to the animals that find their way to the meat counter.

"Published: July 10, 2004
Federal health officials said yesterday that in an effort to eradicate mad cow disease, they were moving toward a policy, based on the advice of international experts, to ban the feeding of any farm animal parts to other farm animals. Current practice allows cattle to be fed chickens, pigs and other species that had been fed rendered cattle whose tissue could theoretically be infected. Such practices are widely said to have caused the epidemic of mad cow disease in Britain 20 years ago and its spread to other countries....Consumer groups expressed outrage that the Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for regulating animal feed, did not close another loophole, feeding cattle large amounts of cattle blood, chicken waste and other materials that might spread the disease....At least 30 million American cattle are slaughtered each year. Under the new plan, all their intestines, which can now be fed to other animals, would have to be disposed of. The brains, tonsils and other risky tissues from older animals would also have to find resting places. Today, the wastes go into chicken and hog feed and pet food."
New York Times

What have other countries battling BSE done with such wastes to keep them out of the food chain?

"In Britain, such wastes are burned with fossil fuels to make Portland cement, Dr. Sundlof said."
New York Times

"'We decided to focus our efforts on the one measure that will have the greatest effect,' he said. 'We want to have a rule in place that the next time, if we find another animal, we can say, "Look, we've done everything we can that is reasonable."' The rules, if adopted, would require the cattle industry, food manufacturers, renderers and many other industries to revamp their practices completely, Dr. Sundlof said."
New York Times

To some, this is more than just a health concern. Being forced to "revamp their practices completely" is an expensive step. On the other hand, the entire industry suffers when one cow is found infected. Last December, when the one US case was reported, "More than 50 countries then cut off imports of U.S. beef and at least 700 additional cattle in Washington state were killed as a precaution."

Questions of the Week:
If you were a farmer, butcher, or a manufacturer who used tissue from cattle, what laws and/or changes to the current practices would you want? Would you want things to stay as they are? What would be the reasons motivating you to want (or not want) changes made? What do you think the consumer has the right to know about your practices? Do you think the general public should be informed when BSE test results are inconclusive, or do you think this knowledge should only be made public after the sample has been confirmed negative or positive?

As a consumer, what laws and or changes to the current practices do you want, if any? What are the reasons motivating you to want (or not want) changes made? What do you think the consumer has a right to know about the practices of farmers and manufacturers who use tissue from cattle? Do you think the general public should be informed when BSE test results are inconclusive, or do you think this knowledge should only be made public after the sample has been confirmed negative or positive?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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