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Mad Cows From Beef Feed?

There's another issue. The reason why mad cow disease became a problem is that ground-up cattle were being put in cattle feed. The FDA banned this practice in 1997. The USDA points to this ban as a major factor in the safety of U.S. beef.

But chickens can be given feed containing pellets of ground-up beef.

"Chickens are messy eaters. They knock a lot of this pelletized feed on the floor -- then they sweep up the chicken litter and feed that back to the cows," Halloran says.

It takes years for a person infected with BSE to develop the fatal human disease called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease or vCJD. Are there cases out there waiting to be diagnosed?

The USDA thinks not. The agency points to its program of prohibiting meat renderers from using any brain or spinal-cord tissues in any food product as well as to its testing program.

"The safety of our food is addressed through our interlocking safeguards and removal of any type of material that contains the BSE agent in the U.S.," USDA Chief Veterinary Officer John Clifford said yesterday in a video news release. "Our livestock population is one of the healthiest in the world. Consumers should be confident in our food supply."

Halloran says that consumers worried about BSE in meat can reduce their risk by avoiding cuts of beef most likely to transmit the disease. Organ meats, she says, are the least safe, followed by bone and by ground beef products such as sausage and hamburger.

But there may be a better way to stay safe: Buy 100% grass-fed or certified organic beef.

Clifford maintains there's no cause for concern.

"Our food safety inspection service oversees production to make sure materials like brain and spinal cord are removed appropriately and not allowed to enter the food supply," he says.

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