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Should We Be Afraid of Mad Cow Disease When It Is Called "Atypical"?

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Banned Imports of Beef From Brazil

After the discovery of a mad cow in its herds, Brazil is experiencing what the US went through in the early 2000's when three mad cows were found in its food supply: rapid, across the board boycotts of its exports. Japan, China, South Africa, South Korea and Saudi Arabia have banned imports of beef from Brazil since its first suspected mad cow case came to light in December.

Mad cow disease is a fatal transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE), which is called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in cows, scrapie in sheep and goats and chronic wasting disease (CWD) in deer and elk. In humans, it is a terminal neurological brain disease called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD).

When Mad Cow Was Discovered in The US

In December 2003, when a mad cow was discovered in the US, imported from Canada and slaughtered in Moses Lake, Washington, 98 percent of the US' $3 billion overseas beef market evaporated. Mexico, Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, South Korea, and 90 other countries banned US beef almost overnight. The only reason the European Union didn't ban US beef was it was already banned for its high use of growth hormones.

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The US spent most of 2004 trying to woo back its beef sales to Japan who replaced US beef with imports from Australia, New Zealand, and South America. But one month after the country finally agreed to start importing younger cattle only (which are thought to pose less mad cow risk) the unthinkable happened: a US shipment to Japan from Atlantic Veal and Lamb of New York contained veal with the backbone still attached. Spinal material is banned because it poses more mad cow risk and Japan immediately reimposed its boycott. Atlantic Veal and Lamb was subsequently accused of welfare abuses to animals.

Meatpackers and Slaughterhouses Not in Noncompliance

A USDA audit designed to reassure Japan did the opposite. It found nine other meatpackers and slaughterhouses were not in noncompliance with removing animal parts that pose mad cow risk. Published reports said the gigantic Swift & Co. plant in Grand Island, Nebraska, was banned from shipping beef to Japan altogether. "The U.S. government does not take the issue seriously enough," wrote Eiji Hirose of Yomiuri Shimbun/Daily Yomiuri about mad cow risks. And almost ten years later, Japan has still not fully restored US beef imports. Nor has China.

Since even one case of vCJD in humans from eating infected meat-variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease-threatens domestic and global beef markets, when suspected cases have arisen in the US, officials often assure the public the diseases are sporadic or hereditary CJD which originate spontaneously and are not from eating meat. Assurances often come before the fact since diagnosis can only be made from a brain biopsy, usually after death. But if CJD is something that "just happens," the public is greatly reassured and federal officials don't have investigate the beef supply-the ranches, packinghouses, feed suppliers and even stores and restaurants.

Working to Safeguard Threatened Beef Markets

Since April, there is another harm reduction technique that is working to safeguard threatened beef markets. Faced with two mad cow scares this year, both US and Brazil authorities have debuted the concept of "atypical mad cow disease." Spontaneously-erupting mad cow that has no known cause and may be a genetic mutation has seldom if ever been reported before. But it now seems the new, preferred diagnosis.

A mad cow found in April at a slaughter facility near Fresno whose identity officials protected (identities of mad cow producing ranches in Texas and Alabama were also protected) was "just a random mutation that can happen every once in a great while in an animal," said Bruce Akey, director of the New York State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at Cornell University. "Random mutations go on in nature all the time." Brazil officials are similarly saying their mad cow suffered from "atypical mad cow disease."

Mad Cow "Spontaneous" and "Atypical"?

Designating cases of mad cow as a "spontaneous" and "atypical" certainly frees officials from lengthy, expensive investigations into the cows' herd mates, offspring, ranches, slaughterhouses and most importantly feed. It certainly salvages threatened international and domestic beef markets and keep people eating US beef. It certainly quiets news stories when herds start to exhibit mad cow disease. But is it true?

Martha Rosenberg is a columnist and cartoonist, who writes about public health Read more stories by Martha Rosenberg.

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