“Mad Cow Disease”

The first case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), or “mad cow disease,” in the United States was confirmed on December 25, 2003. Naturally, cattle producers are quite concerned with how this case will affect both their operations and their markets.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has set up a BSE Information and Resources web page that provides current statements from USDA and links to additional sources of information.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also maintains a page devoted to Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, which includes both consumer and industry information.

Information from USDA indicates that the incubation period for BSE in cattle is 2 to 8 years. Epidemiological data from the BSE outbreak in Great Britain suggest that the disease could be spread by animal feed containing contaminated meat and bone meal as a protein source. In addition to being fatal to infected cattle, BSE has been linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD) in humans, which is believed to be caused by eating neural tissue, such as brain and spinal cord, from BSE-affected cattle. New regulations being implemented by USDA are designed to reduce the risk of BSE-carrying neural tissues from entering the food system.

The National Center for Infectious Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control has a web page on Bovine Spongiform Encepalopathy and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association also offers a Mad Cow Disease website with facts, questions and answers, and background on BSE, CJD, and nvCJD.

Market observers have noted that concern over “mad cow disease” is likely to spur increased interest in beef considered to be at low risk of BSE due to the way it is produced. For example, organic, “grass-fed,” or “pasture-raised” beef is thought by many to present less risk of BSE because the animals are less likely to have consumed animal protein than industrially raised beef. However, since the terms “grass-fed” and “pasture-raised” lack precise legal definitions, they offer only limited assurance regarding animals’ histories or diets. By contrast, “certified organic” does carry a legal definition regarding production practices and feed. Even so, concerns about how BSE may spread from a cow to its offspring, and lack of enforcement of feed standards for either organic or conventionally produced beef, make it difficult for producers to prove that any cattle are free of the disease.

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