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Mad cow disease in the news

(article, Culinate staff)

Late last month, a California dairy cow tested positive for mad cow disease (known scientifically as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE). Reactions to the news ran the gamut, from panicky concern to shrugged shoulders.

Science News pointed out that the cow had an atypical form of the disease, one that is thought to occur spontaneously in nature — which is to say, not likely to be caused by feeding the cow contaminated cattle blood or brains. This type of the disease is also not thought to lead to the brain-eating disease that humans can get by eating infected meat. But the Huffington Post ran a story arguing that this spontaneous version may actually be more a more virulent strain of the disease.

Meanwhile, a Los Angeles Times editorial argued that while the United States has had no human deaths caused by eating BSE-tainted beef, there is still reason to adopt stricter standards. The practice of feeding cow parts to cows is banned in the U.S. due to its link to BSE, but cattle parts are still used in chicken feed. Chickens are not susceptible to the disease, but their droppings and any leftover feed morsels are processed back into food for cows.

Of course, the USDA stated that there's no reason to worry, and that even if the California dairy cow had gone undiscovered, milk does not transmit the disease to humans. But Civil Eats declared that this incident was yet another reason to overhaul our food system, pointing out that the USDA will randomly test 40,000 cows for the disease this year — down from 500,000 in 2005.

Most unsettling of all, Bloomberg Businessweek reported on a proposed USDA rule that would weaken protections against BSE in the United States, essentially creating a loophole that allows for the import of cows from countries that have less stringent feed regulations.