Riding Herd on Mad Cow Disease
Feb. 16, 2001 (Washington) -- From European-made herbal supplements to candy and vaccines, a growing number of imported products from Europe and other regions of the world are coming under official scrutiny for fear that they might cause the human version of mad cow disease.
European products are being targeted in specific because mad cow disease, officially known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, has spread across that continent. Once predominately found in the U.K., cases have now been documented in France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, and other nations.
Mad cow is a cattle disease, but scientists have been able to establish a strong association between this cattle disease and the recent emergence of a new version of a human brain disorder called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Moreover, about 90 Europeans, all of whom reportedly ate tainted meat, have died of this disorder since the mad cow epidemic began there in the mid-1990s.
The fear that these other imported products also might cause the deadly brain disorder is due to the fact that, in some instances, these products were made using cattle parts. This fear has been compounded in part by the fact that no one knows how long it takes for the human version to incubate before the disease develops. This has created uncertainty about how many cases eventually will be reported, and whether tainted meat alone will account for all of these incidents.
For example, if it takes over a decade for the disease to incubate within a person, then we could just be seeing the tip of the iceberg, scientists say. Overall, scientists estimate the present risk of contracting the human form of mad cow in a country with tainted meat at about one in 40 million.
The risk that these other products might contain the infectious mad cow agent is at best "theoretical," says Murray Lumpkin, MD, a senior official of the FDA. But in some cases, he says, there is a good reason to believe that those products might pose at least a relative risk.
"When you get into some of these products, then you begin to run a full spectrum of risk," Lumpkin tells WebMD.
For instance, there is little reason to believe that vaccines might contain the infectious mad cow agent, Lumpkin says. But there is, he says, a good reason to believe that a small number of European dietary supplements may pose a risk because they are made with highly infective cow tissues, such as brain parts.
As a result, state and federal authorities already have stepped up their surveillance. In New York City, for example, officials recently banned the sale of German-made candy because it was made with gelatin derived from beef.
Although the local officials eventually concluded that there never was any real danger, Lumpkin says those officials acted appropriately because of the potential public impact.