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Mad Cow Disease: Timeline

Significant developments since the identification of mad cow disease:

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Learn about the new measures put in place by USDA to ensure that mad cow stays out of our food supply.

You can take steps to make sure the beef you buy is safe.

Organic beef is a safer option. Learn more about how organic meat is raised.

Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, (widely known as "mad cow disease"), a degenerative and eventually fatal cattle disease that affects the brain, is first identified in Great Britain. By the end of the century, outbreaks are reported from Germany to Portugal.
U.S. Department of Agriculture bans the importation of live ruminant (cud-chewing) animals from countries with confirmed cases of BSE. Ruminant by-products, such as bonemeal and fetal bovine serum are also banned. For health reasons, other than BSE risks, British beef has not been imported into the United States since 1985.
USDA begins surveillance of U.S. cattle for evidence of BSE.
USDA restricts the importation of ruminant meat and by-products from countries known to have BSE.
BSE epidemic in Britain peaks at 1,000 new cases in cattle per week.
British health authorities announce possible link between BSE and 10 cases of a variant of a fatal neurological illness known as Creuzfeldt-Jakob Disease. To date, about 100 cases have been reported in Britain and France.
USDA extends import ban on live ruminants and at-risk ruminant products to all European countries. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) bans the use of most mammal protein in the manufacture of animal feed for ruminants in the United States.
USDA prohibits all imports of rendered animal protein products from Europe, regardless of species.
The World Health Organization issues a global alert urging all nations to prevent the spread of BSE and protect the food supply. Cattle at a Texas feedlot are quarantined for fear they may have eaten unsafe feed, containing FDA-banned animal meat and bone meal. The FDA later determines the cattle feed contained a very low level of prohibited material. The 1,222 cattle are purchased by the feed manufacturer and taken out of the human food supply.
In March the U.S. Department of Agriculture seizes 233 quarantined Vermont sheep. The sheep, imported from Belgium and the Netherlands in 1996, are believed to have been exposed to contaminated feed. Some of the sheep test positive for a class of degenerative neurological diseases that include BSE and scrapie, a disease limited to sheep and not dangerous to humans. However, there is no way to determine which disease the sheep have. They will be euthanized at a USDA lab and tissue samples will be tested.
Mad Cow Disease is found in Canada in May and all beef imports to US are banned.
A diseased cow is found on December 23 in Washington state.
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman bans the use of "downer" cows for human consumption.
Test results of the cow found in Washington state determine that it originated in Canada.
On January 26, the Food and Drug Administration bans meat from "downer" cattle—animals too sick to walk—from canned soups, pizzas, dietary supplements and cosmetics. The practice of feeding cattle blood to other cattle is also banned. Restaurant scraps will also be prohibited from being rendered into animal feed. The FDA will also set up inspections of rendering facilities and feed mills. Every facility in the States will be inspected annually.

What You Can Do

Public Citizen and the Government Accountability Project, two consumer groups, advise taking these measures to avoid BSE-contaminated beef:

  Avoid brains, beef cheeks and neck bones, because they can contain nervous tissue.
  Avoid any meat that comes from the head and any meat that is taken from close to the spinal column or containing bone that is part of the spinal cord, like T-bone for the same reason.
  Avoid ground beef unless you grind it yourself from a whole piece of muscle meat. Commercially ground beef often contains materials recovered through advanced meat recovery and other processes that can result in contamination with nervous tissue. For the same reason, consumers should avoid pizza toppings, taco fillings, hot dogs, salami and bologna.

Some other steps you can take:

  Buy beef that has been raised organically. By law organic beef cannot be fed animal byproducts, which are believed to be the major source of mad cow disease.
  Buy whole pieces of muscle meat and have it ground on the premises at your butcher shop or grocery store.
  Beef that is labeled "grass-fed" may also be a good choice. There are no regulations governing what can be designated as "grass-fed", but experts suggest asking your butcher about the origins of the beef.
  If you're buying conventionally raised beef, stick to whole cuts of muscle meat like filet mignon or roasts.

—Frances Largeman, RD
Managing Editor


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