Food Engineering

United States & Europe deal with Mad Cow disease

March 22, 2003


Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), better known as Mad Cow disease, has gripped the world with fear as the U.S. and Europe work to solve this puzzling epidemic. More than 178,000 cows associated with the disease have been reported worldwide since it was first diagnosed in 1986 in Great Britain, according to the USDA's Animal and Plant Inspection Service. The disease has also been confirmed in native-born cattle in Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland. However, to date, more than 95 percent of all BSE cases have occurred in the United Kingdom.

The protein prion is believed to be the cause of the disease, but its cure remains a mystery. In a story reported in The Wall Street Journal, David Taylor, a retired researcher at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, indicated that he believes the methods commonly used to destroy other infectious agents can make prions even stronger. Taylor conducted a series of tests at the university using steam, dry heat, and chemicals, but none proved to be completely effective.

Recently, testing hit the fields when the FDA performed a series of evaluations on a Texas feedlot that was suspected of containing meat and bone meal from other domestic cattle, which is a violation of FDA's 1997 prohibition on using ruminant material in feed for other ruminants. Results indicate that a very low level of prohibited material was found in the feed cattle.

FDA has determined that each animal could have consumed up to five-and-one-half grams, or approximately a quarter ounce of prohibited material. The material was domestic in origin, and therefore not believed to contain infected material, since there is no evidence of BSE in U.S. cattle.

"The challenge to regulators and industry is to keep this disease out of the U.S.," said Dr. Bernard Schwetz, FDA's Acting Principal Deputy Commissioner. "One important defense is to prohibit the use of any ruminant animal materials in feed for other ruminant animals."

The European Union (EU) Council of Agriculture Ministers met to discuss disposing of 500,000 metric tons of beef, as well as stocks of stored beef that are expected to grow from 10,000 metric tons to 750,000 metric tons this year alone. By the end of 2003, EU storage stocks of beef could grow to 1.2 million metric tons, possibly exceeding storage capacity.