BSE: We’re all mad here

Cow, ca 1912. Arthur Dove, American. (Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Well, not all of us (yet), but an animal that recently died on a dairy on California has been found be infected with “mad cow disease.” The cow was tested by the rendering plant that collected the carcass and was never destined to be made into hamburger.

Known formally as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, the infection decimated English cattle herds in the 1980s and 1990s. It was also linked to about 225 cases worldwide of a fatal human brain aliment known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Only three previous cases of BSE have been found in cattle in the United States, and no cases of the human version of the disease have been linked to U.S. beef.

The presence of the disease was discovered as a result of random testing, first conducted by a laboratory at UC Davis and then confirmed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which assures us that there is no cause for alarm about BSE. But according to Dr. Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union, there are problems with the USDA’s current approach.

[T]he USDA testing program for mad cow disease is way too small. USDA only tests some 40,000 cows a year of the millions slaughtered annually. So we really don’t know if this is an isolated unusual event or whether there are more cases in US beef. Our monitoring program is just too small.

So far most of the major importers of US beef have said they will continue to buy, although two South Korean retailers have just announced they have temporarily stopped their purchases.

Drawing on lessons from the UK’s BSE disaster, the Guardian has some advice here.

Personal observation:  French restaurants clearly state the national origin of meats in their menus.