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New Mad Cow Case Raises Food Safety Questions

By Aysha Akhtar, M.D., M.P.H.
March 2006

This opinion piece was published in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Should we be scared? Are Americans right to be worried by the news that a cow in Alabama has become the nation’s third confirmed case of mad cow disease, or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE)?

No need to fear, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which began issuing reassuring statements about the safety of our meat supply even before some important facts about the latest case had been established. But as a neurologist, I think consumers need to ask some tough questions about mad cow disease—and not just because of the dead cow in Alabama.

There is growing evidence that we do not yet understand some important aspects of BSE. And there are disturbing signs that the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration, which are charged with protecting consumers from the disease, are not up to that important task.

Just ask McDonald’s Corp. In comments submitted to the FDA in January, the nation’s number one burger seller stunned observers by saying that government safeguards against mad cow disease are inadequate. That critique was echoed by leading scientists.

Why the concern? In humans, eating meat contaminated with BSE has been linked to more than 150 deaths from variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, or vCJD, an incurable brain-wasting disease that causes madness and death.

Unfortunately, our government has been so fearful of hurting the reputation of American beef that it has moved very slowly to protect consumers from this threat. More than two years after the country experienced its first case of mad cow disease, the government is still allowing the beef industry to continue some of the dangerous practices that contribute to the spread of the disease in cattle—and put human consumers at risk.

Cows get mad cow disease by eating feed made from other cows, a cost-cutting practice that the government still has not completely prohibited. Current FDA feed regulations have a number of serious loopholes. Cattle feed can still contain restaurant waste, chicken coop waste, and cattle blood—all potential pathways for mad cow disease.

Canada’s most recent BSE case, which was confirmed in January, underscores how inadequate our feed regulations may be. The infected cow was born after the implementation of Canada’s current feed restrictions, which are tougher than the FDA’s. The likely culprit? Cross-contamination. Feed for animals other than cattle can still contain all sorts of cattle remains, and in both the United States and Canada, that feed can be manufactured at the same mills that make cattle feed.

Prions, the infectious agents that cause mad cow disease and its human equivalent, still pose many scientific mysteries. But two confirmed cases in Europe of transmission of vCJD by blood transfusion suggest that government regulators are wrong to assume that mad cow disease can only be transmitted by contaminated nervous tissue. Blood and muscle tissue may also pose risks.

Consumers also can’t count on the USDA’s cattle testing program to uncover the real scope of the problem. Last year, the government tested less than 1 percent of the total U.S. cattle population. And the USDA tested astonishingly few cattle from high-risk populations, according to a February report from the USDA Office of the Inspector General. Unfortunately, the government recently announced plans to test even fewer cattle.

There’s an even more disturbing aspect of BSE and its human equivalent: The disease can have a long latency period. After a human is infected, he or she may not display symptoms for years. In other words, we may not know we have a serious problem until it’s too late.

But consumers need not wait for the government to get its act together. The obvious solution: Stop eating beef. That reduces the risk of vCJD to almost zero. And if you also avoid other meat products, you can reduce or eliminate your intake of artery-clogging saturated fat and cholesterol.

Scientists still have much to learn about mad cow disease. It may be years before we truly understand the danger. But the more we discover, the more reasons we have to doubt the safety of eating meat.

Aysha Akhtar, M.D., M.P.H., is a neurologist with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.


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