Recalled beef, Mad Cow Disease (BSE), and Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD)

February 18, 2008

Regarding today’s USDA beef recall and the serious health risks associated with processing “downer cows,” Dr. Richard Raymond, under secretary for the Office of Food Safety in a “Technical Briefing” responds:

“In July of 2007 the Food Safety and Inspection Service did issue a final rule called Prohibition of the Use of Specified Risk Materials for Human Food and Requirements for the Disposition of Nonambulatory Disabled Cattle.

This rule states very clearly that nonambulatory disabled cattle are not allowed in the food supply and would not pass ante mortem inspection. The only exception to this rule is if an ambulatory animal passes ante mortem inspection and then goes down. At that time, the FSIS public health veterinarian must be immediately notified and he or she could then make a case-by-case determination that the animal is unable to walk due to an acute injury such as due to a broken leg and would therefore be eligible to move on to slaughter operations. Animals that do go down or suffer an acute injury are slaughtered separately and receive careful examination and inspection by the FSIS veterinarian. They are tagged and labeled and then slaughtered as U.S. Suspects.

If the public health veterinarian at the plant could not determine that the animal was down because of an acute injury, then he would condemn the animal. And if he determines the animal was down because of chronic illnesses, he would also condemn the animal.

…BSE (Mad Cow Disease) security measures do include the feed ban of 1997 that prohibits feeding ruminant protein to other ruminants, and there is an ongoing BSE surveillance program that began before we experienced our first BSE positive cow in the U.S. in December of 2003.

While the government has multiple regulations regarding BSE in place, the prevalence of the disease in the United States is extremely low. Since June 1, 2004, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has sampled more than 769,000 high risk animals, and to date only two animals have tested positive for BSE under our surveillance program, and both of those animals that were positive were born prior to the initiation of the FDA feed ban.

As another measure to reduce the risk of potential exposure to consumers, the Food Safety Inspection Service requires the removal of specified risk materials to prevent them from ever entering the food supply. This is far and away the most critical step to eliminating the risk of BSE exposure. Our FSIS line inspectors are stationed at designated points along the production line where they are able to directly observe SRM or specified risk material removal activities. Other offline inspection personnel verify the plant SRM removal, segregation of these SRMs, and then proper disposition practices.

We will continue working with our partners in the Food and Nutrition Service and the Agricultural Marketing Service during the recall process as we have throughout the ongoing investigation. As a last reminder, the Office of the Inspector General’s investigation and ours is still ongoing, and we continue to support this very important effort. But again, we may not be able to answer all your questions at this time because of this ongoing investigation.

So lastly, to remind you, these cattle that did enter the slaughter facility were nonambulatory, and that is why the recall has been done.”

They were non-ambulatory, “downer cows” that entered the food supply against federal regulations. The risk (and reason for this recall) is that no one knows what caused the cows to become non-ambulatory. There is a possibility they could have been infected with BSE (Mad Cow Disease). Mad Cow Disease is a very scary thing. Most people know very little about it. The following is some basic information on what it is and what you can do to avoid it.

Mad Cow Disease Overview

“Mad cow” is an infectious disease in the brain of cattle. Humans who become infected, usually by eating tissue from diseased cattle, will die of a similar brain disease that may develop over many years.

Abnormal proteins called prions (PRE-ons) are found in brain tissue of diseased cattle. Prions eat away at the brain and create tiny spongelike holes in parts of the brain. These so-called spongy holes cause slow deterioration within the cattle brain, and eventually symptoms affecting the whole body. Death follows. The scientific name for mad cow disease in cattle is called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (meaning sick brain) or BSE, meaning a sickness of the cow’s brain; when damaged brain tissue is viewed on a laboratory slide, it has a spongy appearance.

If humans eat diseased tissue from cattle, they may develop the human form of mad cow disease known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) or new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (nvCJD). The disease was named after the researchers who first identified the classic condition. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in its classic form usually occurs in older people through an inherited tendency of the brain to change or spontaneously for no apparent reason.

The type identified as occurring from eating diseased cattle occurs in younger people and has atypical clinical features, with prominent psychiatric or sensory symptoms at the time of clinical presentation and delayed onset of neurologic abnormalities. These neurologic abnormalities include ataxia within weeks or months, dementia (loss of memory and confusion) and myoclonus late in the illness, a duration of illness of at least 6 months, and a diffusely abnormal non-diagnostic electroencephalogram.  

The transmissible agents that cause the disease in both cattle and humans are “prions.” Prions are not like bacteria or viruses that cause other infectious diseases; rather, they are infectious proteins. 

Diseased prions are found in the brain, spinal cord, eye (in the retina), and other tissues of the nervous system of affected animals or humans. In addition, prions can be found outside the nervous system including the bone marrow, spleen, and lymph nodes. Low levels of prions may also be found in blood.

Prions are highly resistant to heat, ultraviolet light, radiation, and disinfectants that normally kill viruses and bacteria. Prions may infect humans who eat meat from infected cattle. Even cooking meat infected with BSE does not eliminate the prions or the risk.

Once infection occurs, there is a long incubation period that typically lasts several years. When prions reach a critical level in the brain, symptoms such as depression, difficulty walking, and dementia occur and progress rapidly.  

Scientists believe that BSE is transmitted from animals to humans when humans eat meat from infected animals. The content of infected brain tissue may be higher in some food products than others, and it may also depend on the way the animal was slaughtered. 

But the question remains: How do cattle develop BSE? Feed is the major route for transmission among cattle, according to veterinary medicine experts at Iowa State University. When ranchers and farmers feed cattle with products made from other cattle or sheep, such as ruminant feed, they are recycling diseased animal protein in feed containing meat and bone meal, thus causing the disease in cattle.

Infected adult cattle may develop signs of the disease slowly. It may take from 2 to 8 years from the time an animal becomes infected until it first shows signs of disease.

Symptoms in the animal include a change in attitude and behavior, gradual uncoordinated movements, trouble standing and walking, weight loss despite having an appetite, and decreased milk production.

Eventually the animal dies. From the onset of symptoms, the animal deteriorates until it either dies or is destroyed (cattle who cannot stand are called “downers”). This disease process may take from 2 weeks to 6 months.

How to lower your risk for contracting vCJD from contaminated beef:

  • Eat poultry and fish, or choose a vegetarian diet. 
  • Avoid beef products that may contain bits of spinal cord or brain tissue. These include ground beef, sausage, and hot dogs. Solid pieces of muscle meat are less likely to be contaminated. Bone-in cuts such as a T-bone steak and intestine are more risky.
  • If traveling to countries where BSE has been detected, such as the United Kingdom, Europe, Portugal, and Spain, don’t eat beef. Avoid having a blood transfusion overseas.
  • Milk and milk products are not thought to be affected or a means of transmittal.

To view complete transcript of Technical Briefing Regarding Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company Two Year Product Recall (02/17/08) go to:!ut/p/_s.7_0_A/7_0_1OB?contentidonly=true&contentid=2008/02/0047.xml


3 Responses to “Recalled beef, Mad Cow Disease (BSE), and Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD)”

  1. Mike S Says:

    As I recall there is no way to completely destroy prions. Astoundingly, this includes incineration which makes it a very dangerous pathogen. The USDA is completely blowing off the opportunity to test at least some of the meat which is still out there in freezers. They could determine some of the kids that might be at risk for CJD before the meat is disposed.

  2. annierichardson Says:

    Hi Mike,

    My guess is that they are testing the beef, we’re just not hearing about it. Although the serious health risks of this recall are being downplayed, there is cause for real concern. vCJD is an incurable, terrifying disease. The possibility of fatal pathogens like BSE entering the food system is not that far fetched. AR

  3. […] also: Recalled beef, Mad Cow Disease (BSE), and Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD) Posted by annierichardson Filed in Health Tags: Canada, Mad Cow, variant creutzfeldt-Jakob […]

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