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What You Need to Know About Mad Cow

May 2, 2012

Last week, the first incidence of mad cow disease since 2006 was discovered in a dairy cow in Tulare County, California. The 10-year-old Holstein was tested for the disease after it developed lameness and could not stand.

Though the cow was never intended for the meat market and the food supply is not in danger, the development is certainly worrisome. But does that mean you need to give up red meat for good? Not necessarily. Here are the straight facts you need to know about mad cow disease:

Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is a neurodegenerative disease that causes spongy deterioration in the brain and spinal cord.

BSE's origin is not entirely known, but is triggered by a misfolded protein called a prion. These prions were spread through the bovine population when healthy cows (normally herbivores) were fed the remains of infected cows in the form of meat and bone meal.

The incubation period of the disease is 30 months to 8 years, which means it can go undetected for a long time.

BSE is transmittable to humans through food. It is most easily transmitted through meat contaminated with infected nervous tissue, but any tissue, including meat and blood, can carry the infecting agents.

In humans, the disease is known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which also forms sponge-like degeneration of the nervous system. It is incurable and invariably fatal.

In 1986, scientists confirmed the first known case of BSE in a cow in the United Kingdom, where meat and bone meal was a common feed additive. In the United States, meat and bone meal was not widely used because of the availability of cheap soybean and corn feed.

After an outbreak of mad cow in which more than 450,000 BSE-infected animals entered the human food supply, causing the deaths of 166 people in the UK and 44 elsewhere (none in the US), strict regulations were put in place to prohibit the incorporation of meat and bone meal into cattle feed.

Though it’s illegal in the U.S. to feed the remains of cattle back to any cows, meat and bone meal can be fed to chickens, the droppings of which are often incorporated back into cow feed. Not only is that pretty gross to think about, but it's downright dangerous given the potential consequences.

In this case, U.S. health officials say that the infected cow developed the disease as a result of a mutation and not as a result of its feed.

So what does that all mean? As a community, it is important for us to be as informed as possible so we can make the best choices regarding our eating habits. If you enjoy animal protein, it’s always important to eat animals that have themselves eaten well. Go for organic whenever possible, and always choose meat that was fed a vegetarian diet. Check out our post on how to make sense of meat labels to better navigate the meat aisle.

It is also important to remember that mad cow has yet to cause any deaths in the United States, so there’s no reason to panic.

Does the risk of mad cow keep you from eating beef?