What is the significance of the recent discovery of a cow in Alabama having Mad Cow disease?

What is the significance of the recent discovery of a cow in Alabama having Mad Cow disease? Isn’t that the very first in North America? Should we be worried?

—Chris Carroll, Austin, TX

Actually, Mad Cow Disease, technically known as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), was first detected in North America in January 1993, when a beef cow that had been imported from Britain to the Canadian province of Alberta tested positive. The Canadian government destroyed that particular cow, as well as its entire herd, in order to quell the potential spread of the disease.

Federal agricultural agencies in both Canada and the United States then stepped up testing for BSE coast-to-coast while imposing stricter import criteria for cows coming in from abroad. And since the disease spreads not from direct cow-to-cow contact but only through consumption of infected feed, both countries banned rendered cow remains from being added to cattle feed beginning in 1997.

The redoubled efforts seemed to pay off, as another case of BSE didn’t show up in North America for a decade. But then in May 2003, veterinary officials in Alberta confirmed another case, but this time involving a cow born in Canada. Seven months later, American officials announced the first case of BSE in the U.S., when the remains of a deceased cow from a farm in Washington State tested positive.

Regulators feared that some meat may have made its way into supermarkets, which in turn sparked a wave of mad cow hysteria, including import bans on American beef by some foreign countries. Records showed that the cow had been born in Canada, leading to cross-border finger pointing. But when the disease showed up in a Texas cow in June 2005, and then again recently in an Alabama cow, Americans stopped blaming Canada and began looking to stem the spread of the disease within U.S. borders.

BSE, a fatal disease of the nervous system of cattle, first appeared in the United Kingdom in the mid-1980s and then spread across Europe, peaking at almost 1,000 new cases per week in 1993. In 1996, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), an offshoot of BSE, was detected in humans and linked to the eating of meat and cattle products contaminated with BSE. Fewer than 200 cases of vCJD, all originating in Western Europe, have been detected since the human disease was first identified.

Despite assurances by both Canadian and U.S. officials that BSE cases in recent years have been isolated ones and that North American beef is fit for human consumption, some skeptics aren’t so sure. “This disease is endemic in U.S. herds,” says News Target health and wellness columnist Mike Adams. “It is circulating in cows right now and there are almost certainly cows infected with mad cow disease that are being slaughtered and used in the human food supply,” he adds. Adams is worried that the millions of Americans who eat red meat every day are putting themselves at risk while the government focuses on spinning the story to stifle valid concerns.

CONTACTS: Health Canada BSE Information, www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/securit/animal/bse-esb/index_e.html; U.S. Department of Agriculture BSE Newsroom, www.aphis.usda.gov/newsroom/hot_issues/bse.shtml.