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Mad cow disease: management by crisis.

After years of trepidation, the unwanted happened: a cow afflicted with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)--mad cow disease--was discovered in the U.S. last December.

And that raised the possibility that American consumers are at risk of suffering its human counterpart--the devastating and invariably fatal variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease. The one infected Holstein cow immediately caused cattle prices to plunge, Japan and other countries to refuse U.S. beef, and confusion among consumers about what's safe to eat. Unfortunately, the crisis probably didn't have to occur.

Over the past decade, the government and the cattle industry have failed to create a stronger "fire-wall" that might have prevented mad cow disease here. Instead, the industry fought off critical control measures that Europe and Japan had adopted. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and Congress lacked the political will to insist on those controls.

Now that the disease has struck, you'd think that everyone finally would agree that it's time to buttress safeguards on all fronts. To its credit, the USDA has said that it will require the industry to track animals from birth to slaughterhouse. It will also bar from the food supply injured or sick animals, as welt as the brains and spinal cords of older cattle. (Those are the tissues that would most likely contain the misfolded proteins called prions that cause mad cow disease and variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease.) But the USDA needs to do more (see coupon).

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Fortunately, the risk of contracting variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease is vanishingly small. You could avoid it entirely by not eating beef, or by eating organic or grass-fed beef, which comes from cattle that aren't supposed to get potentially contaminated feed. Boneless steaks, roasts, and ground beef made from boneless beef--as well as cheese and other dairy foods--also appear to be risk-free. Bone-in cuts, like T-bone or porterhouse steaks, may pose a very, very slight risk. Most risky are brains, neck bones, and meats that might contain central-nervous-system tissue from infected cows. That includes meat that has been mechanically stripped from bone (it's used in some ground beef, hot dogs, taco fillings, pizza toppings, and sausages, but you can't tell from the labels).

For further details, please visit www.cspinet. org/madcow.

Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D.

Executive Director

Center for Science in the Public Interest
COPYRIGHT 2004 Center for Science in the Public Interest
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:On The Web www.cspinet.org
Author:Jacobson, Michael F.
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2004
Words:390
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