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 mad—behavior.
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 BSE.
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 degenerate.
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 American consumer.
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 infected there.
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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