TOPICS > Health

The First Case of Mad Cow Disease in the United States

December 24, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: Federal investigators searched today for more details about the Washington state Holstein cow — like these — believed to be the first case of mad cow disease in the U.S. Officials quarantined the dairy farm where the cow came from in the town of Mabton, about 40 miles from Yakima.

The 4-year-old cow was slaughtered on Dec. 9 because of paralysis after calving. Tissue samples were sent to a federal government lab for testing, but before positive results were revealed, parts of the animal went through at least three processing plants in Washington state.

While investigators try to trace where the infected cow was born, more than 10,000 pounds of beef originating from those facilities have been recalled. USDA officials said the risk was very low that any infected material had entered the nation’s beef supply.

Mad cow — or bovine spongiform encephalopathy [BSE] — is a disease that destroys the brain and nerve tissue in cattle.

It first surfaced in Britain in the late 1980s and spread through parts of Europe and Asia. People consuming infected beef or nerve tissue can contract a related disease called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease — a fatal brain-wasting disorder.

More than 150 people have died, all but ten of them in the United Kingdom. U.S. officials sought to reassure the public about the safety of the nation’s beef supply. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman:

ANN VENEMAN: What the important point is is that the high-risk materials, that is the brain and the spinal column, that would cause infectivity from humans were removed from this cow.

We do know that. And so muscle cuts of meat that may have entered the food supply pose little or no risk to human health and so we are taking this recall action in an abundance of caution.

RAY SUAREZ: In the past, the United States has banned beef imports from countries with mad cow disease. Shortly after yesterday’s announcement, American beef imports were banned by nearly a dozen countries, among them the three largest importers: Japan, South Korea and Mexico. U.S. beef producers said the industry’s estimated $175 billion business would be hit hard.

GREGG DOUD: It is going to have an impact because Japan is our biggest export market. This year we are going to export about $1.4 billion worth of beef to Japan.

That’s a little over one-third of our entire export market and that will have a short term economic impact on our industry.

RAY SUAREZ: Tissue samples have been sent to a laboratory in England for analysis. A final confirmation is expected in about five days.

RAY SUAREZ: Two views now on the safety of the U.S. beef supply. Dr. William Hueston is the director of the Center for Animal Health and Food Safety at the University of Minnesota.

He previously worked for the USDA and led the agency’s first risk assessment on mad cow disease in 1990. And Caroline Smith DeWaal is the director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group.

Dr. Hueston, a few moments ago you heard secretary of Agriculture describe the risk to human life as extremely low. This early in this story is that fair to say?

DR. WILLIAM HUESTON: I think that’s fair to say. We want to get, you know, the USDA is taking the right actions, get this material out of the food supply that originated from that cow. At the same time, carry on your multi projected investigation so we can determine the extent of the problem.

RAY SUAREZ: Is the meat business set up in a way that you can be confident about getting that animal’s materials out of the food supply?

DR. WILLIAM HUESTON: Well, to catch it this quickly, I think there is a small army of individuals right now tracking the material, and identifying it through the processing plants, through the various lots that may have included parts of this animal. And I think there’s a good chance that the majority if not all of that can be retrieved.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you share Dr. Hueston’s optimism?

CAROLINE SMITH DeWAAL: It’s just sheer luck that they found this cow before it, more of it entered the food supply. This cow was a downer cow, but it wasn’t described that way because it was having symptoms of this disease.

They just happened to catch it. It had the disease, but it was largely not showing signs of it yet. So we’re not as confident that while this cow was identified that there couldn’t be other cattle exposed at the same time that this one was, that are currently in the system.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, an elaborate set of safeguards had been set up in the United States so as not to follow the European model, where entire herds had to be destroyed. Are we seeing now that it was breachable, or finding that it was generally a pretty solid wall?

CAROLINE SMITH DeWAAL: Well, I think the wall has held so far. But the fact that we have a cow right now that’s sick means that the wall wasn’t strong enough. We had a feed ban in place, and we’ve banned products from countries that had BSE for many years now.

But the feed ban wasn’t strong enough to prevent this cow from getting infected. The risk from this one cow is probably minimal. The risk, though, from the cows that also might be infected that are currently in the system is the one we’re concerned about.

RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Hueston, this 4-year-old animal, what are the possible pathways that this disease may have taken into this particular barn in this particular part of Washington state?

DR. WILLIAM HUESTON: Well, the most likely explanation is that this animal received contaminated feed and was exposed early in life to some small amount of contaminated feed.

In fact, that’s the whole reason behind the prevention actions that the United States has taken beginning in 1989, to reduce the potential introduction of the agent into the United States, and to establish internal controls to try to minimize the recycling if you will or the spread of the agent within the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: When you say contaminated feed, contaminated with what, exactly?

DR. WILLIAM HUESTON: Well, contaminated with the agent that causes BSE. So this is an agent that accumulates in some tissues in the cattle’s body, especially the brain and the spinal cord, and that tissue can go through a process called rendering, animal proteins that are derived from rendering can be used by nutritionists as a protein source in cattle, or could have been used. And we banned that process or that incorporation back in 1997.

RAY SUAREZ: So even after a six-year ban, this substance could have made it into feed, how?

DR. WILLIAM HUESTON: Well, there are opportunities for leakage, often potentially mistakes or other characteristics. So we know that there’s a possibility and this is the most likely explanation for this case.

RAY SUAREZ: Has the ban been thorough enough, Caroline?

CAROLINE SMITH DeWAAL: No. Clearly the ban hasn’t been fully effective, and as Dr. Hueston mentioned, there are opportunities in the system for feed to be mislabeled, for feed to cross contaminate between feed that does contain cattle remains and the feed that doesn’t.

But, Ray, the real issue here is that we have better protections in place actually for cattle than we do for people.

Consumers are allowed to eat products that contain spinal cord that would be banned for cattle — to feed to cattle right now.

We have asked for a similar ban that, spinal cord material and the bones that encase that spinal cord should be kept out of beef production so, we don’t risk having the infectious agent and the central nervous system tissue in our food supply.

RAY SUAREZ: What kind of products would somebody come across that would have those substances in it?

CAROLINE SMITH DeWAAL: Unfortunately, based on USDA’s current regulations, many beef products can contain bits of central nervous system and sometimes that includes spinal cord or nerve tissue that could contain infectious material.

Now, until now USDA has said we don’t need protections for the human food supply because we don’t have mad cow disease in the United States. Well, that logic won’t hold any longer. We need those protections now.

RAY SUAREZ: Is that easily done, Dr. Hueston, keeping those substances out of food?

DR. WILLIAM HUESTON: Well, these are the measures to take these potential materials out of the human food supply as the recommendation around the world.

It’s the recommendation of the World Health Organization, of the Animal Health Organization, International Animal Health Organization, so with the diagnosis of BSE undoubtedly there will be additional measures to take these materials out of human food supply.

RAY SUAREZ: What about keeping downed animals out of the U.S. food supply? It’s my understanding that a measure to do that was defeated on the Hill.

DR. WILLIAM HUESTON: Well, it’s a challenging issue. If an animal breaks a leg, does that mean that the animal’s tissue is not suitable for use in the human food supply? So the government, public health officials and animal health officials have attempted to come up with a situation, a program that allows one to inspect and add additional testing of those animals to remove those that at risk, out of the food supply.

I think the finding, the identification of BSE in the United States, if that’s confirmed, will undoubtedly lead to further measures to preclude this type of animal from entering the food supply.

RAY SUAREZ: Caroline Smith DeWaal, are there techniques, are there modern methods that make finding one cow on one farm in one state a threat to a large and geographically dispersed industry that should give us pause about a wider cut, if through, of the American food industry?

CAROLINE SMITH DeWAAL: Well, we’re certainly concerned that USDA quickly identify if there are more cattle involved here. But the food industry is clearly going to take a strong hit from this.

I mean we’ve lost a lot of trading in beef and will probably lose it until the U.S. can prove that they have systems in place that will actually ensure that these products and these cattle are not entering the U.S. slaughter plants. Unfortunately today, I don’t think they can make that statement.

They can’t make that case, because this cow was discovered, but I was based on really random testing of downed animals. And we don’t have a comprehensive system to identify animals if they aren’t showing symptoms of the disease.

RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Hueston, is that the case, can you trace an animal easily, or more easily than you could before?

DR. WILLIAM HUESTON: Well, we have had in the United States systems for tracing animals. Unfortunately many of those were built on diseases that have now been eradicated, that no longer exist in the United States.

So we are in a sense a victim of our own success in achieving a high health status of animals in the United States. So now it’s an opportunity to rebuild and strengthen that identification system, and put in place further measures that assure an abundant, affordable and safe food supply.

CAROLINE SMITH DeWAAL: Ray, one point I’d make here is that the U.S. has fallen behind in some ways in these types of protections.

For example, many countries now have systems for tracking animals, and identifying animals from birth all the way to the slaughter plant. And yet those systems aren’t being used in the U.S., largely because our industry has opposed it and the government has gone along with that.

Well, now we need these systems. We need world class systems for protecting both consumers and the beef industry in this situation.

RAY SUAREZ: Would the cost of introducing that kind of system, Dr. Hueston, be commensurate with the risk?

DR. WILLIAM HUESTON: Well, there’s a big benefit to have that system. Certainly it would enhance our ability to respond to emerging diseases such as the one we see.

I think the largest debate that we’ll find is who pays and to what degree is this a public good that the government and the people of the United States help pay for and to what degree is this a private good that the individual producer or processing company should pay for, and I think ultimately it’s a balance and a shared responsibility from all parts of the food system.

Ray, if I might take — may quickly correct a piece of information, misinformation? In your introductory remarks you made a comment that said that mad cow disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, had been associated with a human disease, and you gave the mistaken human disease.

The human disease of concern is variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, not classical Creutzfeldt-Jakob. Classical Creutzfeldt-Jakob is found around the world regardless of diet and ethnicity and religion and culture and occurs in one person per million people per year everywhere in the world.

The disease that’s associated with this BSE is called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and you accurately identified that there have been 150 cases to date, all but ten of those found in the United Kingdom.

RAY SUAREZ: Thanks a lot. We gotta go.