Several years ago, when there was an outbreak of mad cow disease in the United Kingdom, many people cut back on their meat consumption out of fear. But our memories are fleeting, and lots of people are very dedicated meat-eaters, so the impact was short lived. Now, however, a cow in California has recently been identified as having mad cow disease…leading once again to the question of meat safety in the U.S.
Of course, the solitary infected cow was removed from the food supply and destroyed, posing no threat itself to meat safety. But how many other cows are potentially carrying mad cow disease (otherwise known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE)? According to the USDA's mad cow disease facts, we are very safe. In their estimation, only one in a million cattle in the U.S. are infected with BSE. And apparently, that was the one that was just discovered. But in reality, it's hard to imagine how they can even determine any type of figure. The agency only tests approximately 40,000 of the 35 million cattle that are slaughtered annually to be sold as beef products.
And when you extrapolate out the math, it gets a little more unnerving. For the moment, let's assume that one in a million number proposed by the USDA is correct. Since there are 35 million cattle slaughtered annually, that would mean, since the USDA has only pulled one cow from the food supply in the last five years, that some 174 infected cattle made it into the food supply. And since each 1200 lb beef animal produces about 500 lbs of meat, that means there were potentially some 174,000 infected half pound meals served in the US in the last five years alone -- based on USDA estimates -- and double that if you think of a serving as a quarter pounder with cheese. Those are not reassuring numbers.
The testing program could potentially be expanded, without even any additional cost to the government. At least one private company that was interested in selling beef to Japan -- which has stringent rules prohibiting the import of untested beef from cattle more than 20 months old -- offered to perform its own testing using the same method as the USDA. But the USDA refused, perhaps concerned that the potential for commercial success without external oversight could encourage shoddy or falsified testing, tainting all of the results of the truly disease-free animals.
Then again, the entire process might be relatively worthless except in the cases of those animals that are much older. The vast majority of cattle raised for consumption in the U.S. are slaughtered before they are two, and evidence of the presence of BSE is not clear for an average of five years after the initial infection. BSE is actually a massing of prions, which are abnormal proteins, within the brain. The symptoms do not develop for anywhere from two to eight years post-infection. And the testing is not able to detect the disease until just before the animal becomes symptomatic. So a two-year-old cow could have a BSE infection for over a year but would likely be completely asymptomatic as it goes to slaughter. Therefore the disease would go undetected even if it was present and this was one of those few cattle selected for testing.
At any rate, the USDA claims that our meat safety level is acceptable because we no longer provide cattle with feed made up of ground cattle, which is what led to the mad cow problem in the first place. (Think cannibalism.) However, cattle farmers still give this same cattle-based feed to the nearby chickens, who scatter it everywhere. When it is cleaned up, astoundingly, this feed is then often passed on to the cattle, who are not supposed to be getting it in the first place. Not to mention the fact that it's worrisome that these chickens that are providing us with either eggs or meat are consuming potentially infected feed as well.
Again, not reassuring.
Unfortunately, until we have all mad cow disease facts recorded and analyzed, we just won't really know how safe our meat is for quite some time. Just as it takes several years for BSE to develop in a cow, the human version of the disease -- Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, acquired by eating tainted meat -- also takes years before symptoms show up.
So, while we can't do anything about any possibly infected meat we have eaten in the past, cutting down on meat consumption moving forward might just be a smart move. There are plenty of other good sources of protein available if you decide to pass on meat entirely. But if you still crave that burger but are concerned about mad cow and a range of other health reasons, stick with organic, grass fed meat only. Not only are these cattle not fed other cattle, but they are given no antibiotics or growth hormones, they have no pesticide concentration in their meat, and they have improved Omega-6:Omega-3 fatty acid ratios. But even if you only eat organic, grass fed meat, you still need to keep your portion size to no more than three ounces a day or less to keep it healthy. And do not cook your meat using high temperature grilling unless you marinate the meat first.
1 DeNoon, Daniel J. "Mad Cow in U.S. Raises Food Safety Questions." WebMD. 25 April 2012. Accessed 30 April 2012. <http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/news/20120425/mad-cow-in-us-raises-food-safety-questions>.