On April 24, 2012, it was announced that the fourth U.S. cow tested positive for BSE. In truth, the first U. S. cow, which was imported from Canada, had “typical” BSE, which was identified in the United Kingdom and has been present in both Europe and Japan, and to a lesser extent in Canada. The two previous U. S. cattle were actually atypical, as was the one identified this week.
Although scientifically less is known about the etiology or causation of atypical BSE, what is known is it is not acquired the same way as the typical BSE (from consuming infected feed containing the brain or other Specified Risk Materials from an infected animal), nor does it seem to present the same danger, even if consumed. No animal slaughtered in the United States for human or animal feed can contain Specified Risk Material, which is where the prion (not bacteria or virus) can be found. This includes the brain, the tonsils, and parts of the intestine, as well as the spinal cord.
This fourth cow from California was found during the routine surveillance of USDA, APHIS (Animal Plant and Health Service). This cow was presented for slaughter in an ambulatory fashion (not a “downer”) and was to be incorporated in pet food, but again, none of the Specified Risk Materials would have been included in the pet foods.
There is no evidence that non-ruminant animals actually get BSE; however, there are quite a few ruminants that humans consume other than cattle – including buffalo, sheep, goat, and elk. The human form of BSE is new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD) which is highly and actively looked for in the United States through a variety of modalities, including biological materials sent to the National Prion Disease Surveillance Center in Cleveland, Ohio.
Since they started actively looking for vCJD, which would have been from cow, three cases in the United States were identified with none having their exposure to U. S. beef. Their risk factors were two from the United Kingdom and one from Saudi Arabia, who most likely had exposure in the UK and/or the EU.
The U. S. has worked very hard to try to assure not only its citizens, but also its trading partners around the world, that due to excellent decision making in the 1980s with regard to the importation of cattle and bone meal, as well as later on in the discontinuation of feeding any of the Specified Risk Materials to cattle or other food animals and embarking on an intensive surveillance program, that the United States, in effect, is free from BSE and should not be worrisome to the American consumer nor our trading partners around the world.
The bottom line is that this cow does not pose a food safety issue. One can only hope that the news media will not make more out of this and, if they want to increase food safety awareness and prevent foodborne diseases, they will do stories on cooking ground beef to 160 degrees Fahrenheit, poultry to 165 degrees Fahrenheit and don’t cross-contaminate between raw and ready-to-eat burgers or poultry and, of course, frequent handwashing.
Melvin N. Kramer, Ph.D., M.P.H., is president of EHA Consulting Group, Inc.