Worrying about mad cow disease

Worrying about mad cow disease

April 26th, 2012 in Opinion Times

The discovery of mad cow disease in a dead dairy cow in California should not prompt consumer panic, but it certainly is reason for concern by those who understandably worry about the safety of the nation's food chain in general and the production and consumption of beef in particular. Heightened vigilance is the proper response.

Public health and agricultural officials hastened to assure consumers that the discovery of the disease does not pose a threat to consumers. They likely are correct. The diseased cow was not intended for human consumption and drinking its milk would not have made people ill. That's the welcome news. What's not so welcome is the fact that the presence of the disease was discovered by chance rather than design. It could just as easily been overlooked.

The animal, died without the classic signs of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), the proper term for mad cow disease. Those symptoms likely would have triggered a test. Instead, the carcass was sent to a rendering plant where it was one of a few chosen from many for testing. "We just randomly pick a number of samples throughout the year," a plant official said, "and this [the cow that tested positively for BSE] just happened to be one that we randomly sampled." That's a pretty shaky foundation on which to base the safety of a significant link in the nation's food chain.

USDA officials confirmed the case of BSE, reporting that it was an atypical case. That means the cow did not get the illness from consuming infected feed, the trigger of outbreaks of the disease. It was "just a random mutation that can happen every once in a great while to an animal," said one scientist.

That may be the case, but broader testing of the nation's cattle would provide greater knowledge about the possible presence of a disease that is fatal to cows and that can cause deadly brain disease in humans who consume tainted meat. That's unlikely, though. Testing programs, never adequate, have been reduced in recent years to save money. That's false economy.

The threat of mad cow disease in the United States, to be sure, is not large. The case announced Tuesday is the first here since 2006 and only the fourth ever discovered in the country. Officials say that current efforts successfully safeguard the nation's beef supply and Americans' health. Maybe, maybe not.

There's one way to be more certain that's the case, rather than hope it is. Other developed nations screen herds thoroughly -- not randomly -- for mad cow disease. They do so with no apparent damage to their economies or food chains. The United States should emulate them. Food supplies and the public would be safer if it did so.