Filed Under: Mad Cow Disease

Mad Cow Q & A

You’ve got questions. We’ve got answers. We consulted with university scientists, farmers, government agencies, and other experts to answer the questions most frequently asked of us by American consumers. As the mad cow hype thickens, we’ll be expanding this resource — so check back often.

  1. Since three U.S. cows have tested positive for mad cow disease, is eating beef risky?
    The short answer is “no.” The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) says that “beef is absolutely safe to eat.” Nearly every reputable expert on the subject agrees that there’s no added risk from eating steaks, hamburgers, or any other beef product.

  2. What do scientific experts say?
    In February 2004 Dr. Ron DeHaven, then the USDA’s chief veterinarian, declared that “the U.S. consumer has every reason to remain confident in the safety of U.S. beef.”

    David Ropeik of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis says that the risk is “as close to zero as you can get.”

    Dr. Ken Petersen of the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service asserts: “Clinical studies tell us there’s virtually zero risk.”

    After the confirmation of a third mad cow case among U.S. cattle, John Clifford, the USDA’s current chief veterinary office, said: “ I want to emphasize that human and animal health in the United States are protected by a system of interlocking safeguards, and that we remain very confident in the safety of U.S. beef.”

    Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, after concluding a study of almost 700,000 animals, said that out of an adult cattle population of 42 million, “the most likely number of cases present in the U.S. is between four and seven animals.… We’re dealing with an incredibly low prevalence in the United States and science tells us that prevalence is likely to decline.”

  3. What are the chances that I can get mad cow disease if I eat beef from an infected cow?
    According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk of contracting the disease from eating beef and beef products, even when infected cows are in the food supply, “appears to be extremely small, perhaps about one case per 10 billion servings.”

  4. If there’s no risk of getting sick, then why all this concern about Mad Cow?
    Prior to December 23, 2003, the United States was the last of the world’s major beef producers to avoid a case of mad cow. The U.S. also happens to be home to an enormous community of anti-business, anti-free-trade, organic-agriculture, and animal-rights activists—many of whom have been publicly wishing this problem on us for years.

    Even though the risk to Americans is insignificant, these activists have axes to grind and millions of dollars to spend. They began flooding media outlets with doom-and-gloom messages just minutes after the USDA confirmed the first domestic mad cow diagnosis.

    Animal rights radicals want to turn America into a vegetarian utopia. Organic-food zealots want us so afraid of our food that we’ll shell out three or four times as much money for so-called “natural” beef. Anti-free-trade activists welcome barriers to U.S. beef exports. And anti-corporate radicals, conditioned to hate the free-market economy and capitalism in general, just love any misfortune that threatens to cripple U.S. businesses.

  5. Just who are these scare-mongering activists? How can I spot their bias in the news?
    Activist groups promoting the U.S. mad cow scare include:

    The names of some of these groups may make them seem harmless, but don’t be fooled. A list of their radical spokespersons and activist spin-meisters can be found on a frequently updated list at .

  6. How old were these three cows and why does that matter?
    The USDA and Canadian agriculture officials have confirmed that the first case was found in an animal born in April 1997, making it about 6-1/2 years old at the time of slaughter. The second BSE-positive cow was born before August 1997. And the third infected cow was 10 years old when it was slaughtered in June 2005.

    The age of these cows matters because a ban on certain cattle feeding practices—put in place in response to the British mad cow crisis—first took effect in August 1997. So the cows in question were alive under the old system, and may have contracted the disease through their feed. There has not been a single U.S. mad cow case in any animal born since this feed ban.

  7. Does this have something to do with “factory farms”?
    Only in the land of make-believe. Mad cow disease and other similar disorders may have been around for centuries. And because the human population has grown, a larger number of domesticated livestock animals are raised for food.

    However, there’s no evidence to suggest that large-scale agriculture is at the root of the mad cow news. The mis-folded proteins (called “prions”) that cause mad cow disease can show up spontaneously. A prion doesn’t care whether its host is in a large livestock facility or a tiny organic farm; whether it eats grass or soy-meal; or which century it is.

    Having said all of that, some relatively reckless British farming practices accelerated the disease’s spread during the 1980s and 1990s. But these practices were banned in the United States over eight years ago. And the United States stopped importing beef from Great Britain in 1985.

  8. Do chickens get mad cow disease? What about pigs?
    No, and no. There are no documented cases of mad cow or similar diseases among chickens or pigs. The same can be said of fish.

  9. Is Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) the same as human mad cow disease?
    No. While the two diseases are from the same “family” of illnesses, CJD is not the result of mad cow transmission from a cow to a person.

    CJD is usually referred to as “sporadic” since it often appears as the result of a random, spontaneous mutation. The human form of mad cow disease, on the other hand, is typically called “variant” CJD, or “vCJD” for short. Equating the two would be like confusing one virus (say, AIDS) with another (like the common cold).

    About 300 cases of “sporadic” CJD are diagnosed each year in the United States . Some organic-food and animal-rights advocacy groups are now claiming that these cases are connected to eating beef. They’re not.

  10. What about Chronic Wasting Disease and “Scrapie” … are these the same as mad cow?
    Scrapie is a sickness in sheep that comes from the same family of illnesses as mad cow disease. For farmers, scrapie has been a fact of life for over 250 years. Some epidemiologists believe mad cow disease first arose when the remains of scrapie-infected sheep were fed to cows in Great Britain . Chronic Wasting Disease is a similar illness that strikes deer and elk.

    Neither disease has ever been directly transmitted to human beings (despite some clever activist spin suggesting otherwise), so there’s no reason to stop eating venison or mutton if you enjoy it.

  11. Is it safer to not eat meat at all?
    Animal rights groups, led by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and its quasi-medical front group, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), are trying to leverage the U.S. mad cow situation in order to scare Americans into becoming vegetarians. But each year there are more cases of food-borne illness attributable to organic fruits and vegetables than to meat. (Organic vegetables are grown in E. coli rich manure.)

    That’s not to say that fruits and veggies are dangerous. Overall, the American food supply is the safest in the history of mankind. The incidence of food-borne illness in the U.S. has decreased over time, and represents a tiny fraction of what people in many other nations are routinely exposed to.

  12. Is it safer to eat organic meat?
    There’s absolutely no evidence that organic or so “natural” meat is any safer than conventional beef. The only guarantee is that it costs more money.

    A wide variety of organic-food activists are engaged in an aggressive PR offensive on behalf of so-called “natural” beef marketers. But the truth is that all beef is safe to eat, and organic meat is no better or worse than the conventional products consumers buy every day.

  13. Is milk safe to drink?
    There is absolutely no evidence that milk, cheese, or other dairy products can transmit mad cow disease. James Cullor, director of the University of California Davis ‘s Veterinary Medicine Teaching and Research Center says U.S. consumers “should feel comfortable with their milk.”

  14. Is veal any more or less safe than other beef?
    Veal, like other beef, is perfectly safe to eat. Most veal calves are slaughtered by the time they are one year old, and no case of mad cow disease has ever been diagnosed in an animal younger than two years. Scientists now understand that it takes several years for the disease to incubate after exposure to infection.

  15. How come the United States does not test every cow for mad cow disease?
    For the same reason American doctors don’t x-ray every patient for lung cancer. Some segments of the population are at greater risk for certain diseases, and others are not.

    According to Dr. Will Hueston, director of the University of Minnesota ‘s Center for Animal Health and Food Safety, testing all animals “would be a colossal waste of taxpayer funds.”

  16. How many people have died from mad cow disease?
    Worldwide, barely 170 people have died from mad cow disease since it was first isolated and identified nearly ten years ago—and none of them contracted the disease in the United States. By contrast, far more of us are killed every year by bolts of lightning, bee stings, dog bites, or garden-variety seasonal flu.

  17. Is mad cow disease being spread from cow to cow because of blood protein in cattle feed?
    There’s no science to back up this claim, heard most often from activists with anti-meat and anti-farming axes to grind. It’s true that a blood transfusion can pass the disease from one person to another, but the infectious agent (called a “prion”) thought to cause mad cow disease has never been found in cattle blood. So mixing some of this protein in with cattle feed doesn’t endanger humans or farm animals. And don’t take our word for it: The overly cautious European Union writes: “It has not been possible to detect the presence of the BSE [mad cow] prion in the blood of cattle, either sick or incubating the disease.”

  18. Is the risk of mad cow infection any less if I cook my beef thoroughly?
    Unfortunately, exposure to heat doesn’t kill infectious prions, so your mad cow risk is the same whether you eat a well-done sirloin burger or steak tartare. But it’s important to remember that the overall risk of any exposure is still very, very low. People should be far more worried about an automobile accident on the way home from the grocery store. Or lightning strikes (which claim 64 American lives every year), or dog bites (25 deaths), or being scalded to death by hot tap water (51), or … well, you get the idea.

  19. If (1) a “mad” cow is rendered into chicken or pig feed, then (2) a pig or chicken eats it, and (3) the pig or chicken is then rendered into cattle feed, can the cow that eats that feed get infected?
    Animal-rights groups have actually been trying to confuse newspaper reporters with this exact scenario. But according to a 2001 statement from the World Health Organization, even if swine or poultry were to eat mad cow-infected animal tissue, they can’t pass it on to cows in the form of cattle feed.

Scientific Glossary
TSE: Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy — the class of brain-wasting illnesses that includes mad cow disease
BSE: Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or mad cow disease
CJD: Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease — a human TSE that is not related to meat (a/k/a “classic” CJD or “sporadic” CJD)
vCJD: New Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease — the human version of BSE, not to be confused with “classic” or “sporadic” CJD (a/k/a nvCJD)
Scrapie: A TSE that occurs in sheep, which has never been found in humans
CWD Chronic Wasting Disease — a TSE that occurs in deer and elk, which has never been found in humans

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