Mad Cow Disease: Are We Safe?

By Kathy Guillermo

The discovery that a cow in Alberta, Canada, was ill with mad cow disease has
sent officials on both sides of the border scrambling to assure consumers
that beef is safe. The U.S. Department of Agriculture claimed that it appears to
be an isolated case, even as it temporarily banned the import of beef and beef
products from Canada to this country.

The case reveals serious flaws in the U.S. and Canadian governments' plans to
keep mad cow disease out of North America. Despite reassurances from
Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman, who declared that she was having steak for
dinner the day the story broke, there is no such thing as an isolated case of mad
cow disease. Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), as it is properly called,
is known to be spread in two ways: when cattle eat the infected carcasses of
sheep or other cattle, or when it is passed from a mother cow to her offspring.

It is likely that the sick cow was given tainted feed at some time in her
life, as the unnatural practice of feeding ground-up bits of cattle and sheep to
cows was not banned in Canada and the U.S. until 1997-two years after the cow
was born. If she ate infected food, so did other cattle in her herd, some of
whom reportedly went into the human food supply.

If the cow's mother had BSE, then the rest of her offspring may also have
been infected. We know, too, that the infected cow was a breeding cow and her own
calves, whom officials have yet to trace, were likely to have had BSE. The
disease would have gone undetected because most cattle are slaughtered before
the symptoms of BSE appear.

The truth is that our government agencies are doing too little too late. Last
year, for example, the USDA tested the brains of about 20,000 cattle for
BSE-a statistically insignificant number of the 37 million cattle slaughtered. The
previous year only 5,000 cattle were tested.

In another move meant to stop BSE from reaching our shores, the U.S. stopped
the importation of ruminants like sheep and cattle from mad cow-infected
countries in 1989. But cattle embryos were imported until 2000, when it was
discovered that mother cows can pass BSE to their offspring. Did BSE enter the
country with an embryo, now a full-grown cow? Neither the USDA nor anyone else knows.

Even the potentially deadly practice of feeding sheep and other ruminants to
cattle has not been effectively halted. While the Food and Drug Administration
banned it in 1997, as recently as 2001 the agency admitted that there was
widespread failure among feed companies to comply with the regulations.

Inexplicably, it is still legal to feed cattle to chicken and pigs. While
nobody knows for certain if pigs and chickens can contract BSE from infected
feed, we do know that sheep, cattle, minks, mice, deer, birds and humans are
susceptible to BSE. We also know that pigs developed mad cow disease in the
laboratory when experimenters injected the infected tissue into their brains. Britain
and all other countries concerned about mad cow have banned feeding any
animals to any other animals-except for Canada and the United States. No one knows
if this unnatural practice may prove deadly in the future, so why is our
government taking such a risk?

The consequences for lax regulations may be grave. So far, 125 people
worldwide are known to have contracted the human form of mad cow disease, new variant
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (nvCJD). The long eight to 10 year incubation
period of the disease means that this number will go higher.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals advocates a vegan diet, both for
the animals' sake and for our own, but until that happens, government agencies
must be rigorous in their testing and enforcement of regulations and
completely honest with the public about the potential danger.

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