A Beef with Beef

By Baker, Chris | Insight on the News, March 12, 2001 | Go to article overview

A Beef with Beef


Baker, Chris, Insight on the News


Despite `mad-cow' disease scares in Europe, beef consumption is up in the United States. But fears of the disease are feeding federal regulators' appetite for stricter control over imports.

U.S. health officials are clamping down as "mad-cow" disease -- at least the fear of it -- spreads throughout the world. Scientists say the chances of the brain-destroying illness appearing in the United States are slim. But several incidents here in the last few weeks have prompted calls for stricter regulation:

* The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) confirmed that 1,222 head of cattle in Texas mistakenly were fed cattle remains, a practice banned in the United States since 1997 because scientists think it could help spread the disease. The FDA also is considering tighter controls on cattle feed and new restrictions on donating blood, another possible form of transmission among humans.

* The German company that makes Mamba candy -- a fruit chew sold in 80 countries, including the United States -- said it would stop using beef-based gelatin in the treat because Germany is experiencing a mad-cow outbreak. Health officials in New York inspected the candy, but decided against pulling it off shelves.

* Brazil suspended shipments of some beef products to the United States in anticipation of a U.S. ban, hours after Canada stopped imports because of concerns about the South American country's efforts to prevent mad-cow disease.

Americans should not worry about the Texas and German incidents, according to the FDA. Beef-based gelatin is safe to eat, and there is virtually no chance the Texas cattle ate remains of infected cows because the United States does not import beef from Europe. "The Texas cattle thing is a nonevent," says Paul Brown, a researcher at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke who has studied mad-cow disease extensively. "The candy in the New York thing is a nonevent, too."

The first reports of mad-cow disease -- clinically called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) -- surfaced in Britain in 1985 when the remains of sheep suffering from scrapie, another brain-destroying disease, were fed to cattle. (Canada's ban on beef imports from Brazil came after 305 sheep in southern Brazil were found to have scrapie.) Since then, Britain has reported more than 180,000 cases of BSE-infected cattle, and mad-cow disease has surfaced in other European countries. Ireland and Portugal have documented more than 400 cases each. The German government has slaughtered about 400,000 cattle that might have been infected. Countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa are most at risk because they import meat and bone meal from Europe, according to the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization.

The human version of mad-cow disease, called new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), was first diagnosed in a British teen-ager in 1995. Since then, 92 persons -- almost all younger than age 55 -- have died of or been diagnosed with vCJD: 88 were in Britain, three in France and one in Ireland. Researchers think people catch vCJD from eating beef that was mixed with infected tissue during slaughter (including ground beef and sausage, but probably not steaks). While they do not know exactly what triggers the disease, they believe BSE causes prion proteins, a normal component of human and animal brains, to become deformed. When this happens, the proteins form a toxic plaque on brain tissue. The brain cells die, and the brain becomes spongelike.

The incubation period of the disease ranges from a few years to as long as decades. Symptoms include poor concentration, lethargy and unsteadiness, followed by depression, uncontrollable body movements and severe dementia. The disease is always fatal, and there is no treatment. Most victims die within two years after the first symptoms appear. Though research continues on treatment, it is not a priority because so few humans are known to be affected. …

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