Frequently Asked Questions:
Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (Mad Cow Disease)
What is BSE?
- BSE is a degenerative neurological disease caused by an abnormal protein called a prion. It is not caused by a virus or bacteria. BSE is a member of the disease family referred to as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSE).
- The prions that cause TSE's are known to congregate in the brain, spinal cord and nervous system of affected animals.
- BSE is a slowly developing disease. It takes years for an animal to get sick after eating contaminated feeds.
- BSE is not contagious, and it does not spread animal-to-animal. It is transmitted through contaminated feed.
What are the human health issues related to BSE?
- It is thought that humans can develop a variant form of CJD (vCJD) by eating the brain or other nervous system tissue from a BSE-infected cow.
- Variant CJD remains extremely rare - there have only been about 220 cases among the more than 50 million people who were likely exposed in Europe. Most likely their exposure was through meat products containing brain or spinal cord from BSE-affected older cattle.
- Government officials remain confident in the safety of the U.S. food supply. The risk to human health from BSE is extremely low.
- Downer (non-ambulatory) animals are not allowed into the food chain and are tested for BSE.
- The scientific community has no evidence to demonstrate that muscle cuts or whole muscle meats that come from animals infected with BSE are at risk of harboring the causative agent of the disease.
- There is no evidence BSE can be transmitted through milk and dairy products.
What protections are in place for America's food supply?
Federal and state officials have implemented a number of preventive measures:
- In 1989 the federal government banned the importation of cattle, ruminant meat, edible products, and ruminant by-products from BSE-positive countries.
- Since 1997, the FDA has banned feeding mammalian proteins to cows and other ruminants.
- Since 2004, USDA has conducted surveillance of high risk animals for BSE.