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USDA Beefs Up Meat Safety Precautions

New Restrictions to Add Extra Layer of Protection Against Mad Cow Disease

Adding Extra Layer of Safety

Officials say many of the changes announced today have been in the works since the first case of mad cow disease was found in Canada in May in order to better monitor the beef supply.

"These actions do not suggest in any way that that meat produced under the current system is unsafe," says Ron DeHaven, DVM, chief veterinary officer at the USDA. "For years, we have had a feed ban in place, high-risk materials from this infected cow were removed, and the meat produced on the day that this positive cow was slaughtered is being recalled.

"Just like with the meat recall, we are making these further enhancements to our system out of an abundance of caution," says DeHaven.

DeHaven says the exact details of how the new measures will affect the USDA inspection process and screening for mad cow disease are yet to be worked out. For example, it's unclear whether downer animals will be allowed to be rendered and used in the production of animal feed, which falls under the jurisdiction of the FDA.

"Those are kinds of details that are yet to be resolved," says DeHaven.

What is mad cow disease?

Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is a transmissible, slowly progressive, degenerative, and fatal disease affecting the central nervous system of adult cattle. The USDA tests some 20,000 animals every year for this disease.

Researchers believe that the infectious agent that causes mad cow disease is a protein normally found on cell surfaces, called a prion. For reasons still unknown, this protein becomes altered to become disease producing. 

Does cooking food kill the prion that causes mad cow disease?

Common methods to eliminate disease-causing organisms in food, like heat, do not affect prions. Also, prions only seem to live in nervous system tissue.

Does mad cow disease affect humans?

A human version of mad cow disease called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) is believed to be caused by eating nerve tissue, such as brain and spinal cord, from cattle infected with mad cow disease. For this reason, the USDA requires that all nervous system materials be removed from cattle that are unable to walk -- an indication that there may be a neurological problem. These cow products do not enter the U.S. food supply. The USDA believes this practice effectively safeguards U.S. public health from vCJD.

According to the CDC, no cases of vCJD have been identified in the U.S.

Having said that, it is important to clarify the differences between variant CJD and another form of the disease, referred to as classic CJD. Classic CJD occurs each year at a rate of 1 to 2 cases per 1 million people throughout the world, including in the U.S. and other countries where mad cow disease has never occurred. It is not linked to the consumption of nerve tissue from mad cow disease-affected cattle -- both vegetarians and meat eaters have died from classic CJD.

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