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Is Mad Cow Disease a Concern in the US?

  I have served calves’ brains several times and I do enjoy them, but have had a nagging feeling of worry about BSE. Is this a valid worry or not in this country?

  It is not. We’ve done our research with the US Department of Agriculture, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and they all give you the green light. Since bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or more commonly "mad cow disease") was diagnosed in cattle in Europe, the US and Canada have taken active steps to keep it from spreading to this continent. Humans are not succeptible to BSE, but scientists believe that it may cause a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD) in humans.

The USDA has restricted the importation of live cows and sheep and associated meat products from countries where cases of BSE have been found since 1989, and from all European countries since 1997. Milk and dairy products continue to be imported into the US from these countries because they are not thought to pose any risk for transmitting a disease to humans. No cases of the disease have turned up in this country

The CDC, which we sometimes believe is overly cautious about food issues, is almost giddily permissive on this subject. "Because BSE has never been found in the US, it is unlikely that food purchased in the US such as at a grocery store or restaurant would be contaminated," says a report on the organization’s Web site. "Thus it is highly unlikely that a person would contract vCJD today by eating food purchased in the United States. It is important for consumers to know that."

Similarly, Alisa Harrison, the executive director of public relations for the cattlemen’s association, says, "There should be no problems with consuming brains if they are of US origin."

Infected cattle have been reported in the following countries: Albania, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Britain, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Yugoslavia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Macedonia, The Netherlands, Norway, Oman, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.

Even in those countries, though, the CDC says the risk of contracting the disease is slight. "In the United Kingdom, the current risk appears to be extremely small, perhaps about 1 case per 10 billion servings of beef. In the other countries of Europe, the current risk, if it exists at all, would not likely be any higher than that in the United Kingdom, except possibly in Portugal, [which] has only recently implemented BSE-related public-health-control measures."

For people concerned about reducing their possible exposure to the disease in Europe, the CDC suggests they can avoid eating beef and beef products or eat only certain cuts, such as solid pieces of muscle meat (versus ground beef products such as burgers and sausages that contain meat from various parts of the animal). "Solid pieces of muscle meat may have less opportunity for contamination with tissues such as the brain or spinal cord that might harbor the BSE agent," the group says.



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