First case of mad cow confirmed

June 5, 2002 The Jerusalem Post by Judy Siegel

Authoritative lab tests in Switzerland yesterday confirmed suspicions that Israel has its first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or "mad cow disease") in a 10-year-old milk cow at Kibbutz Ortal on the Golan Heights.

The Health Ministry said there is no need to panic over the isolated case. Officials said all frozen beef here is imported from countries, mostly in South America, known to be free of BSE, and that no BSE has been found in fresh beef, either.

The ministry recommended people buy meat only in licensed stores and eat only in licensed restaurants. The Agriculture Ministry immediately implemented an emergency plan, prepared in advance, to require the brains of all cattle slaughtered over the age of 30 months to be tested before the meat is released for human consumption. This will cost "several millions of shekels a year," the ministry said. Formal authorization for the program will be brought to the cabinet on Sunday. Some 80 million kilos of beef, half of it imported frozen and the rest fresh and locally produced, are consumed here each year.

Prions (tiny particles of living protein) that cause BSE infect the brain tissue, spinal cord, and retinas of cattle. If eaten, there is evidence that it may cause variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), an incurable neurological ailment that has reportedly caused the death of some 125 people since the BSE-vCJD connection was first discovered six years ago in Britain.

After infected meat is consumed, prions in the human brain change normal proteins in the body and can remain active for decades before symptoms such as disorientation, depression, and anxiety may appear.

BSE infection can be determined authoritatively only from a post-mortem examination of the brain, which looks spongy. The disease cannot pass from animal to human through milk or milk products. Theoretically, however, it may pass from one infected person to another via a blood transfusion. Thus blood donations by people who spent at least three months in Britain between 1980 and 1996 are not accepted here.

The Agriculture Ministry's chief veterinarian, Dr. Oded Nir, said yesterday that it decided to destroy the brain, eyes, spleen, spine, and lower intestines of cattle slaughtered after the age of one year. In addition, cattle over 30 months of age will not be sold for slaughter in the Palestinian Authority.

PA veterinarians were briefed by their Israeli counterparts, and it was decided to boost supervision of the transfer of animals between Israel and the PA.

The infected cow, born in a Beit She'an-area kibbutz and raised on the Golan Heights, began to "act strangely" and died. The ministry conducted preliminary tests and announced BSE was suspected. The results have now been confirmed at the International Veterinary Health Organization in Bern.

Nir said that there is no reason for the public to be alarmed, as calves can be infected with BSE only during their first year of life. Although no signs of BSE were found in other cows, three that the infected cow had been raised with and two calves she gave birth to about two months ago, which were put into quarantine earlier this week, will be destroyed as a safety measure.

Millions of cattle were slaughtered and destroyed a few years ago in Britain after some cows fed with possibly contaminated bone meal were found to be infected with BSE. The incident led to the near-destruction of its meat industry, as eating BSE-infected meat was blamed for a small number of cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob. The connection has not been scientifically proven, however. The animal disease was also diagnosed in cattle in other parts of Europe, including Ireland, Germany, France, and Poland, as well as in Japan.

For some 13 years the ministry has barred farmers from feeding cows and sheep with imported ground-up bone or offal from other animals because they might have been infected, Nir said. But there is a slight chance that the Golan cow had eaten food that was contaminated with something in storage.

Dr. Alex Leventhal, head of the Health Ministry's public health service, said kosher slaughtering is regarded as much safer in preventing the transfer of BSE than killing animals for consumption by shooting them in the head. With the quick cutting of their throats with a very sharp knife, prions tend not to get into the animal's circulatory system, he said.

Leventhal urged putting the BSE case into proportion, as "10,000 Israelis die each year from causes directly related to smoking and 500 die in road accidents, while infectious Creutzfeldt-Jakob has apparently killed only dozens of people around the world."

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