Even as the U.S. lifts its 15-year import restriction on beef from Ireland (which was ground zero during mad cow scares) a likely new case of mad cow has turned up in Ireland. Both Norway and Canada are also reporting cases of mad cow disease which they hasten to call “atypical.”
Scientists rolled out the term “atypical” mad cow disease about three years ago when the U.S.’ fourth mad cow was found in California. The idea of a mad cow disease which “just happens” and doesn’t have a clear cause freed beef producers from trying to find the source of the disease, such as contaminated feed and from having to isolate herd mates and offspring as potential risky animals. The source of the disease in the U.S.’ first three mad cows was never found.
Thanks to official reassurances, many think mad cow disease is no longer a threat to animals or people. Last summer when a fourth U.S. death from the human version of mad cow, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), occurred in Texas, it barely made the news. Neither did the recall of 4,000 pounds of “organic” beef possibly contaminated with mad cow, shipped to Whole Foods and two restaurants, in New York and Kansas City, Mo. The restaurant meat was eaten before the recall, speculated one news source.
But others have doubts about the government’s vigilance. For example, the government protected the identities of the ranches in Texas and Alabama that produced the second and third mad cows found in the U.S., allowing them to resume operations in a month. What?
In accounting for what happened to the first U.S. mad cow, found in Washington state in 2003 but born in Canada, the government said, “By December 27, 2003, FDA had located all potentially infectious product rendered from the BSE-positive cow in Washington State. This product was disposed of in a landfill in accordance with Federal, State and local regulations.” But the Los Angeles Times had a different account. Despite “a voluntary recall aimed at recovering all 10,000 pounds of beef slaughtered at the plant the day the Washington state cow was killed, some meat, which could have contained the Washington cow, was sold to restaurants in several Northern California counties,” it wrote.
Mad cow and its human version, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), are fatal diseases thought to be caused by infectious particles that are not inactivated by cooking, heat, autoclaves, ammonia, bleach, hydrogen peroxide, alcohol, phenol, lye, formaldehyde or radiation. They remain in the soil for years.
Most cases of CJD in humans do not come from contaminated beef and they are often said to be sporadic—happening spontaneously or from genetic causes. Yet if the disease is sporadic in humans and not from a food or environmental source it would not come in clusters as seen on the Texas Department of State Health Services map.
Clearly, there is reason for concern despite government reassurances.