Quick Facts on Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE, commonly referred to as “mad cow disease”)
- The U.S. currently has “Negligible BSE Risk” status from the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), the lowest possible risk level.
- You cannot contract the human form of BSE from eating meat such as steaks, roasts and ground beef.
- The U.S. has not had a case of BSE since 2012, largely due to a robust on-farm surveillance program, a partnership between U.S. cattle farmers and ranchers and the USDA.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS:
What is “mad cow disease”?
Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE, commonly referred to as “mad cow disease”) is a progressively fatal degenerative disease affecting the central nervous system in cattle.
How is “mad cow disease” spread?
BSE does not spread from animal to animal contact or from animals to humans through normal contact. BSE can only be transmitted through feed containing meat and bone meal (MBM) from BSE-infected cattle. In 1997, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the use of such ruminant-derived protein supplements in cattle feed. The feed ban breaks the cycle of BSE and, with full compliance, assures the classical disease will be eliminated. In 2003, USDA strengthened its food safety program by banning from the human food supply any cattle that are unable to walk or show signs of possible neurological disease. The most recent firewall established by USDA mandates removal from the food supply material that would most likely carry the BSE agent (such as brain and spinal cord). This process happens every day with every animal slaughtered to ensure this diminishing disease has no effect on public health.
Has the United States ever had a case of “mad cow disease”?
The first case of BSE in the United States was announced Dec. 23, 2003, and was found in a Washington state dairy cow imported from Canada. In addition, two cases of BSE in cattle born prior to the U.S. feed ban and raised in the United States also have been reported, one in 2005 and another in 2006. In 2012, a fourth animal tested positive for atypical BSE, a very rare form of the disease not generally associated with an animal consuming infected feed. All cases were detected through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) BSE surveillance program.
Is “mad cow disease” found in the beef we eat?
The BSE agent has not been found in beef such as steaks, roasts and ground beef; it is found in central nervous system tissue such as brain and spinal cord. These specified risk materials (SRM) are banned from the food supply.
Is U.S. beef safe from “mad cow disease”?
Yes. Providing the safest beef in the world has always been the No. 1 priority of America’s beef producers. That is why the beef industry has worked with the government and top scientists for more than two decades to build, maintain and expand the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, commonly referred to as “mad cow disease”) safeguards that protect cattle health and beef safety. Actions such as removal of materials that would most likely carry BSE and banning from the food supply all animals that show signs of potential central nervous system disorders ensure beef safety from BSE in the United States.
Can humans get “mad cow disease”?
Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) is a rare, degenerative, fatal brain disorder that has been linked to consumption of beef products contaminated with neural tissue from BSE-infected cattle. Most cases have occurred in the United Kingdom. No cases of vCJD have been connected to beef consumed in the United States. Importantly, vCJD is a very different disease than classic CJD, often referred to simply as CJD.
Has anyone contracted the “human form of mad cow disease” in the United States?
No cases of vCJD have been connected to beef consumed in the United States. Classic CJD, or simply CJD, often is confused with vCJD because of similarities in the names for the different illnesses. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Classic CJD is not related to ‘mad cow disease.’” And, “Classic CJD also is distinct from variant CJD.”
Classic CJD is a rare human illness and about 85 percent of cases occur sporadically, appearing even though the person has no known environmental source for the disease. The annual incidence rate for CJD is approximately one case per 1 million population. In contrast, there have only been about 200 cases of vCJD in the world (most in the United Kingdom) and zero cases associated with beef consumption in the United States.
Classic CJD and vCJD are distinctly separate neurological diseases, each with unique clinical and pathological features. For example, the median age at death for vCJD patients is 28 years, compared with 68 years for patients with classic CJD. The median duration of illness for vCJD is 13-14 months, compared to 4-5 months for classic CJD
What is the U.S. beef industry doing to protect beef safety from “mad cow”?
America’s cattlemen remain committed to an important goal: Continuing to produce the world’s safest beef. U.S. beef producers have worked with federal authorities for the past two decades to set up the system of science-based safeguards that keep the cattle herd and the food supply safe from bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, commonly referred to as “mad cow disease”).
In 1996, the beef industry called for a voluntary feed ban, which established an industry standard against feeding ruminant-derived meat and bone meal (MBM) protein to cattle. In 1997, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made the ban mandatory. The feed ban breaks the cycle of BSE and, with full compliance, assures the classic form of the disease will be eliminated. In 2003, USDA strengthened its food safety program by banning from the human food supply any cattle that are unable to walk or show signs of possible neurological disease. The most recent firewall established by USDA mandates removal from the food supply material that would most likely carry the BSE agent (such as brain and spinal cord). This process happens every day with every animal to ensure this diminishing disease has no effect on public health.
The beef industry continues to work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and other food chain partners to further strengthen U.S. food safety systems overall. In fact, the industry invests $350 million annually in beef safety efforts. Beef producers alone have invested more than $30 million since 1993 in beef safety research.
How does the government assure U.S. beef safety from “mad cow disease”?
Since 1989, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been developing and implementing an internationally recognized series of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, commonly referred to as “mad cow disease”) safeguards to ensure a healthy cattle herd and a safe food supply. For example, certain cattle feed ingredients that could spread BSE have been banned since 1997. Additionally, tissues that could potentially carry BSE in an animal – including the brain and spinal cord – must be removed from cattle prior to processing, and therefore are not allowed into the food supply.
The United States began an active BSE surveillance program in 1990 and, since its inception, more than 1 million cattle at greatest risk for BSE have been tested. USDA’s ongoing BSE surveillance program tests approximately 40,000 high-risk cattle annually. This program is rigorous and exceeds international guidelines by 10 times.
Do “downer” cows threaten the safety of beef from “mad cow disease”?
No. Any cattle exhibiting signs of central nervous system disorder are banned from the food supply. Because the inability of cattle to walk can specifically be a symptom of BSE, USDA prohibits all animals that are unable to walk from entering the human food supply. However, the “downer cow” ban (“Prohibition of the Use of Specified Risk Materials for Human Food and Requirements for the Disposition of Non-Ambulatory Disabled Cattle”) is just one of many safeguards designed to protect animal health and the human food supply from BSE.
How do we search for “mad cow disease” in this country’s cattle?
Since 1990, USDA has conducted a science-based surveillance program to detect BSE in the United States. In the U.S. BSE surveillance program, animals targeted for BSE testing include those exhibiting signs of central nervous system disorders, non-ambulatory animals (those that cannot walk) and other animals exhibiting symptoms consistent with BSE that die on-farm. The program also focuses on cattle older than 30 months of age. Since tests can only detect abnormal prion protein a few months prior to clinical disease, testing younger animals has limited or no value.
USDA maintains an ongoing BSE surveillance program and currently tests approximately 40,000 high-risk cattle annually, a number that greatly exceeds the World Organization for Animal Health’s (OIE) recommended testing levels. The ongoing BSE surveillance program is designed to detect BSE at a prevalence level of one case per 1 million adult cattle.
Additional information about BSE can be found at the following Web sites: