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Mad Cow Disease Comes to U.S.

December 24, 2003

By Louis Wittig : eCureMe Staff Writer
December 23th, 2003 : Physician Reviewed

Already reeling from a tough Flu season, Americans received an early, unwelcome Christmas gift this season; the specter of Mad Cow disease. Federal authorities announced on Tuesday that a slaughtered cow in Washington state had been diagnosed as having Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) - popularly known as Mad Cow disease.

By Tuesday evening, nations as far afield as Japan and South Korea reacted to the discovery by banning U.S. beef imports. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Anne Veneman took to the airwaves to assure Americans no infected meat had entered the food supply.

BSE is a progressive neurological disorder that occurs in cattle as a result of a rare infection. While the exact origin of the infection is a mystery to scientists, most accept that it’s caused by a mutated cell component known as a prion protein. When prion proteins occur in brain cells, the brain begins to waste away. Many small holes occur in the cattle’s brain, leaving it looking sponge-like.

The danger to humans is that in eating infected beef products, consumers could ingest prions and contract the human form of BSE, a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD). Like BSE, vCJD is a degenerative neurological disease. Invariably fatal, there’s no known cure for vCJD and few treatments. Cases are characterized by failing memory and a lack of coordination that can progress to blindness, muscles weakness and coma. Most die within twelve months of being diagnosed, however symptoms can take up to years after infection to become noticeable.

The current outbreak shouldn’t worry consumers, federal officials maintain, because the most infectious parts of a slaughtered cow are its brain and spinal cord. Muscle cuts of beef, the most commonly eaten, are at relatively low risk of transmitting prion proteins. The greatest threat is that highly infectious material from one cow could contaminate a larger amount of widely-available beef product during processing.

The brain and spinal cord of the Washington state cow were disposed of before the steer was processed, officials say. The meat company that processed the cow has voluntarily recalled over five tons of beef that may have come in contact with it.

Consumers seeking information should go to the Department of Agriculture’s website ( or call the deparment’s toll free information line at 1-800-USDACO.

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