Mad Cow in the U.S.?

By Kathy Guillermo

The recent spate of reports on mad cow disease in Europe would give pause to

even the most ardent burger lover. This dread disease, correctly called

bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), has been found in cattle herds in

Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Switzerland, France, Germany and Italy,

leaving panic, dangerous carcasses and economic destruction in its wake.

Eighty people in England have died of the human form of the disease, new

variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (nvCJD), and two in France have been

diagnosed.

No one knows if mad cow disease has come here. But one thing is certain.

Our government is not doing enough to prevent it.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reassures us that it tested the brains of

2,000 cattle for BSE last year. But more than 36 million cattle were

slaughtered. This means that the brain tissue of less than one percent of

cattle was examined in a laboratory-the only reliable method of testing for

BSE. It’s worth noting that sick cows were only discovered in Germany and

Italy when the testing programs were stepped up in response to public demand.

In another move meant to stop BSE from reaching our shores, the U.S. stopped

the importation of cud-chewing animals from mad cow infected countries in

1989. But cattle embryos were imported until just a few months ago, 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? As it takes several

years for symptoms to develop and cattle may be slaughtered before their

second birthdays, neither the USDA nor anyone else knows.

Even the potentially deadly practice of feeding ruminants to other animals

has not been effectively halted. The Food and Drug Administration waited

until 1997 to prohibit the feeding of animal proteins to cattle. Just weeks

ago, the FDA announced that there is widespread failure among feed companies

to comply with the regulations.

Vaccinations could also be dangerous, as materials from cows are often used

as a medium to “grow” bacteria and process vaccines. In December the Centers

for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that vaccinations manufactured

in BSE-infected countries be replaced. The agency’s fear is that the

vaccines could transmit nvCJD to people. Has it already happened? No one

knows.

We do know that spongiform encephalopathies similar to mad cow disease do

afflict other species in this country. Thousands of deer and elk in

Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Montana, Oklahoma and other western states suffer

from Chronic Wasting Disease, a brain disease similar to BSE. Some speculate

that the disease was introduced to the herds on game farms when they were fed

infected tissue from cattle or sheep, and worry that humans who hunt and eat

venison will develop nvCJD.

That fear may be valid. Last April, deer hunter and Oklahoma native Jay

Whitlock died of CJD. His illness has not been officially diagnosed as the

new variant strain of the disease, but most victims of the randomly striking

classic CJD are elderly because classic CJD incubates for 30 to 40 years

before it kills. Whitlock was only 28-years-old.

Like those who have succumbed to nvCJD in Britain, Whitlock was young and had

consumed the flesh of an animal known to be susceptible to spongiform

encephalopathy. He was the second young American deer hunter to die of CJD

last year.

Inexplicably, our government does not officially require cases of CJD to be

reported to the Centers for Disease Control.

There is no excuse for our government’s anemic approach to this serious

concern. Officials must be rigorous in their testing and enforcement of

regulations and completely honest with the public about the potential danger.

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