Mad Cow Disease: What It Is and What You Can Do


With news breaking yesterday that a case of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), was confirmed in California, you may be concerned about keeping your family safe. After the jump, we’ve rounded up the facts on mad cow disease, and what you can do to protect your family.

What caused this case of mad cow?
There are two types of mad cow: one is caused by cows being fed the brains, spinal cords, and bone matter of other cows in their feed, the other is a random mutation that occurs infrequently. The case in California is the mutated variety, and the cause, if any, isn’t precisely known.

What Is Mad Cow Disease or BSE?
According to the CDC, mad cow is a “a progressive neurological disorder of cattle that results from infection by an unusual transmissible agent called a prion. The nature of the transmissible agent is not well understood. Currently, the most accepted theory is that the agent is a modified form of a normal protein known as prion protein. For reasons that are not yet understood, the normal prion protein changes into a pathogenic (harmful) form that then damages the central nervous system of cattle.” It is most transmissible to humans if they eat meat that has been in contact with the brain, spine, and bones of an infected animal.

What should you do to avoid mad cow disease?
Though scientists claim that the risk to humans from this most recent case is extremely low, if you’re concerned you should avoid brains, neck bones, beef cheeks, bone marrow, and bone-in cuts of the cow. Most tests of infected animals have not found BSE in the muscle or milk. If you’re purchasing ground beef, be sure that it is ground on premises from high-quality cuts of beef, and is free of fillers which may contain the parts of the cow you are trying to avoid.

Is organic or grass-fed beef safer?
Maybe. Because this recent case was not caused by feed issues, organic or grass-fed cows may not be safer — though it certainly couldn’t hurt. This form of mad cow appears to be the result of a random mutation, and the feeding practices that led to earlier widespread outbreaks are now illegal. Still it’s worth noting that beef-producing countries where cows are mainly grass-fed, like Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand have never had reported cases of mad cow. To be on the safe side, use the guidelines listed above, and look for animals that are fed an “all-vegetarian” diet, are organic, and preferably pastured or grass-fed.

For more on some of the iffy practices of the commercial food industry, check out 20 Gross and Disturbing Food Facts You’ll Wish You Didn’t Know.

Image: Jmkim dot com

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