United Kingdom an example of things to come for U.S.

    Here’s the good news: If we are going to get mad cow disease, we already have it, so there’s no reason to panic.

    Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or variant form Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease as it is known in humans, has an average incubation period of 10 to 15 years in humans. Some researchers estimate it might even be as much as 30 years before symptoms begin to appear in someone who is infected. What this means is that if our cattle supply has been contaminated, we quite possibly have already eaten infected beef and not known about it. It will be many years before the symptoms manifest themselves. vCJD normally manifests itself as first anxiety and depression, followed by dementia, coma, then death. There is, as of yet, no known cure.

    So if in the next five years, thousands of British people start dying from vCJD, then we know it’s going to be our turn in another five. So far it doesn’t look too bleak. The number of vCJD fatalities in Britain has been steadily rising in the last few years, but nowhere near the rate that was feared when the mad cow scare first began in Britain. vCJD fatalities continue to be fewer than 100 in a year. Given the total population of Britain, there seems to be little cause for alarm.

    Unfortunately, chances are that our cattle industry is infected, and to an undetermined extent as the cattle industry continues to resist increased testing of livestock. What makes the spread of BSE so insidious is that modern farming practices virtually guarantee if there is one infected cow, there will be hundreds more. The key problem is the limited enforcement of the ruminant feed ban. Ruminant feeding is the practice of processing cattle remains to be included in the cattle feed, in order to give the cows an additional source of protein. Besides the ethical malaise that might be felt when considering the action of feeding cows to other cows, this practice was the reason why BSE was able to spread to almost one-third of British cattle before it was checked. The cattle remains that are fed back to healthy cows are often “”downer”” cows, cows too sick to be able to walk, and prime suspects as hosts of BSE. Furthermore, the two most infectious parts of the cow, the brain and the spinal column, are usually processed in this manner.

    There is no easy way to sterilize the meat, because the most likely infection vector of BSE are prions, protein strands smaller than viruses that are extremely resilient. Laboratory tests have confirmed that prions are largely immune to available sterilization techniques, including high heat and radiation. The only existing chemicals that do destroy them would also render the meat inedible.

    BSE generally takes two to eight years for symptoms to manifest themselves in cattle. However, the average lifespan of the meat-producing cow is four to five years. This makes it a very realistic possibility that an unidentified number of infected cows have been slaughtered and eaten before their symptoms began to manifest. Case in point, the one cow that has been confirmed to have BSE in the United States: It had not manifested symptoms of BSE and it had only been tested because it had suffered an injury during calfing, not because it had been suspected of BSE.

    This leads us to the inadequate testing practices of the U.S. cattle industry. Even after the discovery of the infected cow, only “”downer”” cows are tested for BSE. In the case of the infected cow, it had already been butchered and packaged off to a number of states before lab results reported that it was infected.

    An enormous recall of meat had to be initiated because it was difficult to determine exactly where the infected beef had been shipped. In Britain, one in four cows are tested for BSE. In Japan, every cow slated for human consumption is tested. In the United States, where 35 million cows are slaughtered each year, only 57,000 “”downer”” cows are tested. Given the information about the long incubation time of BSE, testing only “”downer”” cows is clearly inadequate. The testing program needs to be expanded and meat tracking needs to be improved so that we are better able to stop shipment of infected beef.

    The Food and Drug Administration needs to properly enforce the ruminant feed ban. According to the FDA, of the companies that handle the processing of cattle feed, “”99 percent of these firms are in substantial compliance.””

    According to a report from the U.S. General Accounting Office, the “”FDA’s data on inspections are severely flawed, and as a result, FDA does not know the full extent of industry compliance.”” According to an even more recent report from Japan’s agricultural ministry, U.S. safety standards are not sufficient to rule out further cases of BSE.

    To date, the FDA has not initiated any punitive measures against noncomplying firms other than letters of protest. Stronger punitive measures, such as substantial fines, should be considered to give an added incentive for firms to comply with the ruminant feed ban.

    It is perhaps shortsighted for the cattle industry to resist changes to reduce the risk of BSE. Besides the ethical imperative to prevent their customers from dying, it is to the financial benefit of the companies to comply with new regulations. While the cost of switching away from ruminant feed systems and increased testing has been estimated at over $300 million per year, the loss of revenue from halted exports far outweighs this amount. Out of the $4 billion-per-year cattle industry, 10 percent of the output is exported. Also, a widespread scare could cause the market to collapse, which would certainly cause more loss of profits than the added cost of testing and new feeding procedures.

    But the issue is less one of cost and more of protection. Unfortunately, it seems that the time for preventative protection is past, while the time for watching and waiting is here.

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