No cow left behind

01/14/04

NU professor advocates testing of all cows for mad cow disease

BOSTON, Mass. For the first time in history, the United States is faced with a confirmed case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease within its borders, but according to Northeastern University professor of chemistry Ira Krull there are many more undocumented cases just waiting to be discovered.

"The American public should be concerned, at this moment, there is contaminated beef sitting in grocery stores and personal freezers across the country," said Krull.

Krull, with assistant chemistry professor Norman Chiu, are working to develop an antimortem clinical test, or assay, to detect chronic wasting disease, a variant of mad cow that affects deer and elk. Current tests for such diseases -- known collectively as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, for the sponge-like formations they cause in the brain -- are effective only on slaughtered animals because brain tissue is needed to confirm a diagnosis.

Krull, a strong advocate for mandatory mad cow testing of all slaughtered cows intended for market, suggests the United States follow the lead of countries such as England and Japan. England, in response to their mad cow disease epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s, instated mandatory testing of all slaughtered cows intended for market, keep detailed records off all cows within their borders, and banned the use of all ruminant feed. Currently, the United States and Canada lag on all accounts, says Krull.

"It's disturbing that, even with a confirmed case of mad cow disease, slaughtered cows are not tested for the disease before they are sent to market," said Krull. Approximately .03 percent of US slaughtered cattle are randomly tested for mad cow disease by the United States Department of Agriculture each year. For the USDA to mandate regular testing of every cow for mad cow disease would cost an additional $20 to $25 per cow, which translates into an increase of six cents per pound of beef.

Krull says the issue of testing for mad cow disease is highly political. The more cattle tested, the more likely it is that some will be found with the disease. "They don't want to find it," says Krull. "The USDA really should be funding this like crazy, but it's not."

The practice of providing ruminant feed to farm animals has been acknowledged to be extremely dangerous, says Krull. The high concentration of nerve and brain tissue in ruminant feed is thought to greatly increase the risk of transmission of mad cow disease. In the 1990s, the U.S., along with most other beef-producing nations, introduced a ban on ruminant feed, but Krull points out the problem of regulation remains. "Currently, there is no way to prevent small farmers from making and using ruminant feed" said Krull.

Nearly 140 people worldwide have contracted the untreatable and fatal Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a variant of mad cow, after eating contaminated beef. And, because the disease has a very long incubation period, more are diagnosed each year.

"I don't believe we will see change until the beef industry is forced to be accountable for selling contaminated products to consumers," said Krull.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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