Friday, May 11, 2012


It's always disturbing when a food risk everyone has forgotten about suddenly comes back out of left field. That's what has happened recently with "mad cow disease" (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy - BSE for short) in the U.S. Even CNBC covered it during the business news.

Unlike some other countries, like the U.K, and to a much lesser extent, Canada, the U.S. has considered itself safe from this disease, and its human variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease (CJD). Then suddenly, we have this dairy cow in California, that had been "shipped for rendering" - that is, to the slaughterhouse - which is diagnosed with it.

Are Americans now at risk from this fatal neurological disease of cattle, that can leave humans with an incurable brain disease (microscopic holes developing in the brain) if they eat contaminated beef? The answer at the present time is "no." There has only been one case of BSE in recent years (making only four in total in the U.S.) and all the cases of CJD among residents in the U.S. (about three) have been caused by eating contaminated beef overseas. We have pretty good controls set up to reduce incidence of BSE in cattle and to avoid BSE getting into our meat even if cases do occur.

But then there is the fact that USDA's ongoing BSE surveillance program only tests approximately 40,000 high-risk cattle annually with many times more getting through that are not tested for BSE. And while we know that this particular infected cow's meat did not enter the food supply, we don't know if other members of the same herd were also infected and these have made it into our hamburgers or steak (it doesn't get into the milk). More tests are being done.

In the meantime, don't worry. The incubation period for this disease can be as long as seven years, so relax and enjoy your dinner. (I can't resist the black humor). Read the section in The Safe Food Handbook if you want to know more about the issue.

To your good health,

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