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Posted on May 9, 2012 by

Mad cow disease in California — a real threat or not?

a young man holding a hamburgerIn the past month, two farms in the state of California have been quarantined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as they continue to investigate the discovery of cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), more commonly known as mad cow disease. Since 2003, the United States has confirmed four cases of BSE. In this case, researchers are linking the origin of the disease to a cow raised 10 years ago which may have produced two calves with the disease.

What is “mad cow disease” exactly?

BSE is a degenerative brain and spinal cord disease that affects cattle. First discovered in 1986, in the 1990s there was a huge outbreak in the United Kingdom that, at its peak, saw 1000 confirmed cases per week. Through the end of 2010, the UK reported a total case number of 184,500 infected cows. The incubation period of mad cow disease (the time it takes from exposure of the disease to when symptoms are apparent) is relatively long, ranging from 30 months to 8 years. Thus, a cow may be infected with no apparent signs of the disease.

Mad cow disease is of concern to public health experts because there is a strong evidence of a causal link between it and a fatal brain disease in humans, known as vCJD (Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease). Around 150 deaths from vCJD were attributed to people eating tainted beef in the UK. However, the CDC counsels that the risk for developing vCJD, even if contaminated meat has been eaten, is very low.

How concerned should we be about the latest outbreak?

Although incidents of BSE in cattle must be properly controlled to avoid the possibility of humans being affected, the good news is that in the recent cases in California, the infected cattle did not enter the food chain, and there is therefore no threat to human health. Dr. Bruce Akey of Cornell University’s Animal Health Diagnostic Center stated, “There is still no evidence at all that BSE is anything but an extremely rare event in the United States, and nothing that poses a threat to the human or animal food chain.”

While there’s no reason, then, to stop tucking into those juicy burgers, this incident is a good reminder that it’s always important to stay informed about the food you eat and keep up to date on possible outbreaks. Food borne diseases are responsible for close to 48 million illnesses and 3,000 deaths annually. This equates to one in every six Americans falling ill each year. You are your best advocate in food safety and consumption!

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