Mad cow disease: food for thought

Mad cow disease: food for thought

September 7, 2001 The Deseret News (Salt Lake City, UT)
Question: We are planning a trip to England this fall and wondered if it is safe to eat meat there. Also, what are the chances of getting mad cow disease in the United States. We don't eat a lot of red meat, but we are still concerned. Thank you.

Answer: The scientific name for mad cow disease is "bovine spongiform encephalopathy" or BSE. According to an article in the June 2001 issue of Nutrition Action Health Letter, cows with the disease are disoriented, irritable, apprehensive and unable to stand or walk properly. In humans, the disease resembles Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), a rare, invariably fatal brain-wasting disease that seldom occurs in people under age 50. Because the disease turned up in younger people, it was called varient Creutzfeldt-Jakob (vCJD). In 1996, vCJD killed 10 people; last year it killed 27. More than 100 people have died from this disease, all of them in Europe. However, no one knows how many are already infected, because it may take five to 10 years for symptoms to emerge.

According to the article, BSE in cows and vCJD in humans is caused by abnormal proteins called prions. Prions are found in the brains of all mammals, including humans, but with BSE and vCJD, these proteins are somehow deformed and may accumulate in the brain, causing holes in the areas where thoughts, emotions, speech and coordination were controlled.

The article states that the first cows to get BSE probably got it by eating feed made from sheep suffering from scrapie, a disease that has afflicted the animals for more than 300 years. Like BSE, scrapie is caused by prions.

We usually don't think of farm animals eating other animals, but they do -- usually in the form of meat-and-bone meal protein supplements made by rendering (boiling and grinding) the carcasses of sheep, cattle, pigs, poultry and road kill. Just about everything left over from the slaughterhouse -- bones, brains, internal organs -- is used for this protein source. It is likely that the cattle got BSE from the feed, and then their remains were recycled into more protein feed, which infected more cattle.

Could this problem extend to the United States? All it would take is one infected cow or sheep to contaminate a batch of animal feed. The FDA has tried to stop this from happening by prohibiting animal-feed mills from mixing meat-and-bone meal made from rendered cows and sheep into feed for cows or sheep. But mix-ups have occurred on several occasions.

The other problem relates to the way cattle are processed. Prions are found mostly in an animal's brain and spinal cord, not in its meat. But some plants "mechanically separate" meat by compressing carcasses, "much like a used car is crushed into a dense block of metal." The meat "paste" made using this process can contain brain and spinal cord tissue, and this paste is often used to make hot dogs, sausages and burgers.

This year the European Union banned mechanically separated meat. Unfortunately, the United States hasn't done the same, but it the technique isn't often used here, and labels must reflect its use. The problem is, there are no labels on foods you eat when eating out, so it is possible that hot dogs, sausages, hamburgers, and some other restaurant foods made with ground meat could contain spinal cord tissue.

Another separation process called "advance meat recovery (AMR) is replacing the mechanical separation. Using this system, companies are supposed to remove the animals' brains and spinal cords before putting the carcasses through the machinery.

But the process is difficult, and some samples show spinal cord tissue isn't always removed. Apparently, the only sure way to get rid of the nervous-system tissue is to require meat processors to remove the entire spinal column (bones and all) before processing.

To answer your question of whether it's safe to eat meat in England, I'll again use information from the Nutrition Action Health Letter.

The mad cow epidemic in the United Kingdom is decreasingly dramatically, according to the newsletter. Part of the reason for the decline is that the British government has destroyed more than four million cows, many of them healthy, to prevent new outbreaks.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control have estimated that the odds of a human contracting mad cow disease from eating a serving of British beef to be about one in 10 billion.

However, if you remain concerned, use the following guidelines:

Beef: In countries where mad cow disease has been found, don't eat burgers, hot dogs, meat topping on pizza and sausages, which are more likely to be contaminated with infected tissue than boneless steaks, roasts and other whole cuts. Cuts with bones may contain spinal cord tissue or tiny nerves that would be infectious if they come from a cow with BSE.

Pork and Poultry: These meats are considered safe, even in countries where cattle have BSE.

Fish and shellfish: They are considered safe if they're caught in the wild. Farm-raised fish should be OK because they're generally fed fish meal and soy meal.

Dairy products: These are considered safe even if they come from a cow with BSE.

Gelatin and pig products: Considered low risk by the World Health Organization.

The bad news: For well over a decade, England exported its tainted animal feed to more than 70 countries. Some scientists believe that the next epidemic may occur in places such as Russia and Asia, which have few if any safeguards.

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