Even as the U.S. lifts its 15-year import restriction on beef from Ireland (which was ground zero during mad cow scares) a likely new case of mad cow, BSE, has turned up in Ireland. Both Norway and Canada are also reporting cases of mad cow disease which they call atypical.
The term "atypical" mad cow disease was first widely used about three years ago when the U.S.' fourth mad cow was found in California. The designation frees beef producers from trying to find the source of the disease, such as contaminated feed and from having to isolate herd mates and offspring as potential risky animals since the pathogenesis is considered spontaneous.
Mad cow disease and its human version, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), are not the headline grabbers they were a few years ago. Last summer when a fourth U.S. death from vCJD, occurred in Texas, it barely made the news. Neither did the recall of 4,000 pounds of "organic" beef possibly contaminated with mad cow, shipped to Whole Foods and two restaurants, in New York and Kansas City, Mo. One industry source speculated the meat was eaten before the recall.
To Big Meat, downer cows are a financial issue by Martha Rosenberg
But others have doubts about the government's vigilance. In accounting for what happened to the first U.S. mad cow, found in Washington state in 2003 but born in Canada, the government said, "By December 27, 2003, FDA had located all potentially infectious product rendered from the BSE-positive cow in Washington State. This product was disposed of in a landfill in accordance with Federal, State and local regulations." (U.S. Department of Agriculture, House Committee on Government Reform and House Committee on Agriculture United States House of Representatives Joint Hearing, Review of the USDA's Expanded BSE Cattle Surveillance Program, Testimony of The Honorable Phyllis K. Fong Inspector General, July 14, 2004)
But the Los Angeles Times reported that despite "a voluntary recall aimed at recovering all 10,000 pounds of beef slaughtered at the plant on the day the diseased animal was killed. Some of that meat was sold to restaurants in several Northern California counties," and "soup made from the bones had been eaten." None of the restaurant owners received written notice of the recall, reported the Times and "federal inspectors did not visit them until 10 days after the recall."
Eleven months later a second mad cow was found in the U.S. and, unlike the first cow, was homegrown--born, raised and used for breeding at a Texas ranch, whose identify was protected. The cow had never left the property reported the Associated Press. ("Cattle Herd Must Stay Put." Associated Press, July 1, 2005) The cow had been tested twice and found disease-free until USDA Inspector General Phyllis Fong ordered a better test. (Nebraska State Paper, June 27, 2005)
The 12-year-old cream-colored Brahma cross had been sold by a farmer, whose identity was also protected, at a livestock sale and purchased by an order buyer who sent her to the slaughterhouse four days later, according to the government final report.
Despite reports that the cow was unable to walk at the livestock sale, the farmer told government investigators, "the cow had always been excitable and had fallen while she was being loaded to go to the market, but that this was not unusual behavior for her in his opinion." The farmer was "relatively sure" he had not kept any offspring from the cow but "there were essentially no records maintained on the index farm," reported the government.
On March 13, 2006, a 10-year-old deep red, crossbred beef cow from an Alabama operation whose identity was also protected became the third mad cow in the United States, the second born here. Like the Texas cow, she was a downer, and "had at her side a 2- to 3-week old red Charolais cross female calf" at the time of her death. Despite investigations at 37 farms, the source of the disease was not found.
As new reports of mad cows surface and import restrictions are lifted, will U.S. government inspectors be up to the task?
The entire story of the government's mishandling of mad cow disease is found in my Penguin Random house distributed expose Born With a Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks, and Hacks Pimp the Public