Call it a flashback, or just a newsflash of panic-inducing news, but as of last week, that old nemesis of hamburger lovers is back – mad cow. According to the Department of Agriculture, “mad cow” (or bovine spongiform encephalopathy) was detected on a cow carcass taken in for rendering last week at an animal-rendering plant in Hanford, Calif. This is news, as up to this point, mad cow had never been found within the United States, and we have lived with a false sense of security for over a decade, as our neighbors in the European Union dispatched thousands of head of cattle out of fear, and concern, of the disease spreading to other livestock and humans. To be clear, this infected cow found in central California “was never presented for human consumption, so it at no time presented a risk to the food supply or human health,” John Clifford, chief veterinary officer at the department, said in a statement (supposedly the cow had been intended for pet food). Right now, the DOA is confident that the domestic food supply is safe, but they are effectively on high alert (it is unclear if this was the absolute first case found in the U.S. or the first case actually verified).
Nevertheless, as with any outbreak, consumers of every stripe are concerned about the safety of their food supply (as they should be). While government officials assure us there is no need to worry, we (us omnivores at least) should remain vigilant, as well as educated. Here are a few mad cow factoids, and this particular case, as supplied by the USDA and FDA, that might make you feel a bit more at ease (or at least a bit more educated on the subject):
• Mad cow is the common name for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), a fatal disease caused by abnormal proteins (prions) in the brain and nervous system.
• The disease affected 37,311 cows in Great Britain in 1992.
• In 2011, there were only 29 cases worldwide.
• No human case has been seen in the U.S., except for one in a woman who moved here from England at the time.
• The affected cow found in California is only the fourth in the U.S. since the testing program started a decade ago.
• The USDA tests about 40,000 cows a year out of the 34 million slaughtered.
• This one was evidently high risk. It died and was sent to a rendering plant. It either looked suspicious enough to be singled out for testing or was picked up on routine testing.
• When the test came back positive, authorities impounded the carcass.
• It never entered the food supply for either people or pets.
• How it got the disease in the first place is either unknown or undisclosed. The most likely possibility is that the disease developed spontaneously (as it does occasionally in older cows).
Do you feel confident with the current state of our food supply, in regards to mad cow? If you haven’t already, does something like this turn you away from eating beef? Is there something about the virulence of this particular form of disease that is particularly alarming or upsetting to you?