Mad over Meat

By staff May 1, 2004

Call it the luck of the draw. Although 35 million cows are slaughtered for human consumption every year in the United States, at the time, only 40,000 were being tested for disease-less than one percent of that total. It was in that less than one percent of test samples that a single Holstein dairy cow from Canada was diagnosed in Washington State last December with "mad cow" disease.

Within days, 10,000 pounds of meat were recalled and 24 countries closed their ports to U.S. beef, sending the industry's $3.8-million export market into a tailspin and dropping domestic beef prices by 20 percent.

You'd think all those TV images of cows staggering around farmyards would send carnivores everywhere fleeing their favorite cuts. Not in Sarasota. "I still serve 800 pounds of beef a month," says Michael's On East executive chef Jon Zottoli. And grocery stores say their sales are staying strong.

At Ruth's Chris Steak House, corporate vice president of culinary and purchasing John Cannon says he's heard of one cancellation-by a Japanese family in one of the company's California restaurants. "Our customers understand our product, and we've done a good job of educating them," says Cannon, adding that for 38 years, all their beef has come from the same Midwestern corn-fed herds.

Far from slowing meat sales, the "mad cow" scare has had some positive effects at area restaurants, spurring interest in specialty meats and beef alternatives. At Morton's Market, for example, salmon sales have surged. The store is also selling a fair amount of pheasant, venison, rabbit, buffalo, lamb, wild boar and elk. Along with pork, "lamb sales have definitely jumped," at Michael's On East, says Zottoli. And at Ruth's Chris, bison was a big hit this winter (Publix has also begun selling frozen bison).

Still, who wouldn't be concerned about a disease called "Mad Cow," or more accurately, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)? One of a family of diseases that includes scrapie in sheep, chronic wasting disease in deer and elk, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans, it causes sponge-like holes to form in the brains of affected animals and people, and it is always fatal.

BSE is believed to have originated in the United Kingdom when the elimination of a food processing step allowed infected scrapie tissue from sheep to mix with tissue that was used for cattle feed. Before 1997, cattle feed often included meat byproducts not sold for human consumption. As soon as the first infected cows were discovered, the United States (and most of Europe) banned the practice.

BSE infects the brain and spinal cord of cattle, although it's also been found in the eyes, tonsils, and portions of the small intestine. If a person consumes meat containing infected tissues, he can develop a fatal variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease known as vCJD. The first human case was discovered in the United Kingdom in 1996.

According to the USDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine, the incubation period for BSE in cattle is anywhere from two to eight years. But it can turn humans into ticking time bombs that may take up to 13 years to explode. In 2001, the British Medical Journal suggested that incubating human cases of vCJD might be capable of secondary transmission through donations of blood, tissue or organs. The World Health Organization reports that vCJD has already been transmitted through contaminated cornea transplants and can be transmitted through treatment with natural growth hormone.

But before you swear off beef forever, remember that not all cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob are contracted from eating meat. Ten percent are hereditary. Up to 90 percent are sporadic, occurring with no known cause in people aged 65 or older. An average of 300 people die from this form every year in America.

So far, the variant form of CJD caused by "mad cow" has struck only people aged 30 or younger, and although 153 such cases have been reported worldwide, all but 10 were in the United Kingdom. One case has been discovered in Canada and one here in Florida, but both victims lived in the U.K. and probably contracted the disease there.

"We don't think it's a big threat," says Matt Baun of the Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service, one of at least five different agencies that are responsible for ensuring the safety of America's food chain.

For one thing, Baun says, BSE does not affect the muscle tissue that humans routinely consume. Since 1989, no country known to have BSE-infected cattle has been allowed to import live cattle to the United States. In 1997, that ban was extended to all European countries. Since 1999, U.S. blood collection agencies have excluded residents of the U.K. or those who have traveled there; in 2001, the policy was extended to include donors who had traveled to other European countries since 1980. And since 2000, the government has prohibited countries known to have BSE from importing cattle feed that contains material from reprocessed animal protein.

Baun adds that for decades prior to the ban, USDA was already sampling 20,000 cattle every year for BSE. When the first case was discovered in Canada in 2001, USDA doubled that surveillance to 40,000 samples. It was in this additional testing that they found the infected Holstein last December.

But as Americans learned last year, spotting an infection and stopping its spread are two different things. Officials were able to trace the Holstein back to Canada through DNA testing and import certification (FSIS requires all imported animals to have certificates of origin), but there is currently no uniform tracking system for beef steers born inside the United States. The Department of Agriculture eventually suspended its search for 11 of the herd of 81 that were born on the same Alberta, Canada, farm as the infected Holstein because it simply can't find them.

And now a new threat may be looming. In February, Italian scientists isolated a strain of BSE that's nearly identical to the one found in people with sporadic CJD-which means it might not be so sporadic after all.

The aberrant strain, called bovine amyloidotic spongiform encephalopathy, or BASE, was detected because Italy tests all cows over 30 months that are slaughtered for human consumption. America limits samples to older cows and those that are incapacitated or showing other symptoms of BSE.

While beef steers are generally slaughtered within their first 24 months, dairy cows as old as six and seven years are often sold for meat after they've stopped producing milk. Many advocacy groups believe these are the ones most at risk for carrying BSE. The Canadian Holstein was about six or seven years old, according to Baun, and the Italian cows that carry the BASE strain were 11 and 13. All three appeared to be healthy.

After the infected Holstein was discovered, the USDA impounded more than 2,000 tons of meat and bone meal that were planned for cattle feed. "Rendered material could and can still be fed to [animals other than cattle]," according to Daniel McChensey, director of the FDA's office of surveillance and compliance. "It was recalled and destroyed because it could have contained material from the BSE cow."

In fact, if any diseased cow finds its way into a processing plant, it can infect healthy beef through the machinery that strips meat from its bones, since the same machinery processes cattle for both human consumption and rendered animal feed. Last year, an internal USDA survey found that 35 percent of the product samples they tested from automated meat recovery systems was contaminated with central nervous system tissue-the same type of tissue at risk for BSE.

Under regulations that went into effect in January, meat obtained through automated meat recovery is still allowed, but separate equipment, facilities and production lines must be used for processing protein prohibited from cattle consumption. New rules also prohibit the slaughter of "downer" cattle (cows that cannot walk, but have not been tested for BSE) for human food; and 80,000 FSIS inspectors and veterinarians have been stationed at processing plants to examine animals. In March, the Agriculture Department announced that it will devote another $70 million to test 230,000 more cows every year, starting in June. Among those will be 200 randomly selected healthy cows from every state.

That's not enough to satisfy Japan, which got 30 percent of its beef from the U.S. before last year. Like Italy, it tests 100 percent of the cattle it slaughters for human consumption and has found 11 cases there since 2001.

Baun counters that the United States has never had a reported case of BSE in cattle raised in this country. "Most cows today were born after [the feed ban of] 1997," he says. "As time goes on, that pool of cattle will disappear altogether." He claims that Americans are at far greater risk from common bacteria like salmonella and listeria, which kill 1,500 annually.

More than 200 known diseases are transmitted through food, and the CDC estimates that food-borne illnesses other than BSE cause 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths every year in this country. E. coli bacteria alone makes 73,000 people sick every year and kills at least 60. So while there may be something sinister lurking in your food, Baun says, at least for now, "mad cow" disease isn't likely to be it.


All the impounded beef from the BSE-infected Canadian Holstein last December was tracked to three Western states: Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Here's where some of our steak restaurants and chain grocers get their fresh beef.

Morton's Market-Processing plants in Iowa and Colorado.

Michael's On East-Consumer's Packing in Chicago.

Ruth's Chris Steakhouse-New City Processing in Chicago.

Kash n' Karry-While they declined to specify where their beef comes from, Kash n' Karry says none of their beef, fresh or frozen, comes from any of the affected farms.

Winn-Dixie-Processing plants in Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, Washington, Illinois, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Wisconsin, Georgia and Michigan.

Publix-Sam Kane Beef Processors in Texas, Nebraska Beef in Nebraska and Excel Beef in Iowa. 

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