How safe America's meat supply is from mad cow disease

How safe America's meat supply is from mad cow disease

July 4, 2001 CBS Morning News


This morning's Eye on America has something to think about as you eat that holiday burger: How safe is America's meat supply from the mad cow disease that plagues much of Europe? Wyatt Andrews reports.

WYATT ANDREWS reporting:

Fifty-seven million pounds of beef will hit the grills this holiday, as America enjoys its special independence from mad cow disease. There is no such freedom in Europe. Since our report in January, mad cow in cattle has spread from Britain, cross-continent, into Eastern Europe, and the human death toll is up dramatically.

Dr. DAVID HEYMANN (World Health Organization): This is an epidemic already.

ANDREWS: Dr. David Heymann of the World Health Organization says 25 people have died of mad cow disease this year, the most ever. Most alarming, he says, it's now clear it takes humans at least a decade to get sick after their exposure to infected beef products. The true horror of this disease has yet to come.

Dr. HEYMANN: If, as we understand, the incubation of 10 to 13 years is a minimum, we may at the be--be at the beginning of a very much larger epidemic.

ANDREWS: In the US, meanwhile, the fire wall against mad cow is based on a simple premise: Protect American cattle and you protect humans.

Ms. LINDA DETWILER (USDA): What we look for in cows, we look for any evidence of--that something may be wrong with their brain or...

ANDREWS: Linda Detwiler heads the USDA task force that checks cattle for any sign of brain disease.

Ms. DETWILER: They may walk in circles. They may press their head against a solid object.

ANDREWS: This year, the agency is doubling the number of tests performed on cow brains. And while the good news remains zero cases of mad cow, the disadvantage is the limitation of the test itself. If they ever do find the disease, it would be years after the cow got infected. So for scientists, the race is on for a mad cow blood test. At the University of California-San Francisco, Dr. Stanley Prusiner says the detection of prions, the infectious agent in animals, could halt the disease in humans.

Dr. STANLEY PRUSINER (University of California-San Diego): If we could, three days before slaughter, examine each cow that's about to be slaughtered, then we could eliminate those cows that are infected with prions.

ANDREWS: So--and if you eliminate it from cows, you eliminate it from the food chain.

Dr. PRUSINER: Then--exactly.

ANDREWS: But the greatest unknown in mad cow disease is still, how exactly did this disease jump from cow to man? It's widely believed the source is food, especially hamburger and sausage, but there are other foods like milk and cheese and gelatin which, while thought to be unlikely, have not been ruled out.

In Europe, that very uncertainty still makes eating a burger a show of bravado. So far in America, this Independence Day, we are mad cow-free [This statement is almost meaningless considering the lack of adequate surveillance in this country--BSE coordinator]. In Beltsville, Maryland, Wyatt Andrews for Eye on America.

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