Mad Cow disease was first identified in the United Kingdom in the 1980s and gets
its name from the erratic behavior it causes in infected cattle, which will stumble, stagger and exhibit strange—or
Formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) the disease and
its effects on humans was not fully understood until the last ten years, where scientific advancements have since
identified its causes and its potential on both livestock and humans. Mad Cow has since been attributed to roughly
140 deaths in the U.K., where almost 4 million cows have been destroyed in an effort to combat its spread and stop
The disease is believed to have originated in the U.K. after
farmers began giving cattle feed laced with the tissues from other animals, including sheep and other cattle. The
tissue used in the feed; however, was found to include misshaped proteins that scientist believe, once ingested,
trigger changes in normal proteins. This, in turn, causes the brains of cattle to turn into waste and
Scientists believe the disease makes its way to humans who have ingested the beef of an
infected cow that contains spinal chord, infected brain or intestinal remains.
Mad Cow hits the U.S.
In 2003, the first case of Mad Cow Disease
was discovered in the United States. While it was a very isolated case and the disease has not been shown to have
spread, other cases have since appeared. Its first appearance in the U.S. had a noticeable and negative impact on
the beef industry, sending beef prices into a downward spiral. The discovery also led to a ban on U.S. exports of
beef, and hundreds of animals were slaughtered in an effort to stem any outbreak and locate any other potentially
infected animals. The industry has yet to fully recover from the effects of mad cow disease on the psyche of the
The USDA is adopting better testing methods. Currently, the only way to truly know if a
cow has become infected is to study the brain of the animal after it dies. Though the symptomatic stumbling and
erratic behavior is easy to spot, better testing in Europe should make the identification of infected animals and
the potential for outbreak much easier once fully implemented in the United States.
The debates over Mad Cow, the use of animal byproducts
in livestock feed and the government’s efforts to curb the spread of BSE are still raging. In July, a court
overturned a ban which closed the Canadian border to beef importation in 2003 after the first cow was discovered
Some groups, ranchers and otherwise, have derided the USDA and the federal government
for not doing enough to stop the use of feed that contains other animal tissues, and argue the government has done
little to prevent its spread by not requiring private testing for BSE in cattle.
What does it mean to you?
For the smaller rancher, BSE poses
several challenges, not the least of which is ensuring your animals avoid catching the disease. It is important to
note the disease is rarely found in North America, with only a relatively small number of cases since it first
appeared on the scientific radar.
The Mad Cow scare; however, has led consumers to seek alternative beef production
methods that use natural feed with no potential to carry the infected tissues. For a smaller rancher, while Mad Cow
is no doubt a concern that all should be aware of, the decision to look to these alternative feed methods should be
made only after careful study of the goals of your operations, the methods and means to raise cattle as such, and a
detailed understanding of Mad Cow disease itself. You can have your feed tested if you still harbor concerns, and
many products will indicate their contents on packaging.
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