|January 7, 2004:
The first case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy
(BSE), or "mad cow disease," in the United States
was confirmed on December 25, 2003. Naturally, cattle
producers are quite concerned with how this case will
affect both their operations and their markets.
In response to this concern, the National Center for
Appropriate Technology (NCAT) has this week added a
BSE page to its National Sustainable Agriculture Web
This page contains links to USDA, U.S. Food and Drug
Administration, Centers for Disease Control, and other
sites with information about BSE. The NCAT site also
provides access to free publications from NCAT's ATTRA
program about pasture-based beef production.
Information from USDA indicates that the incubation
period for BSE in cattle is two to eight years. Epidemiological
data from the BSE outbreak in Great Britain suggest
that the disease could be spread by animal feed containing
contaminated meat and bone meal as a protein source.
In addition to being fatal to infected cattle, BSE has
been linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD)
in humans, which is believed to be caused by eating
neural tissue, such as brain and spinal cord, from BSE-affected
cattle. New regulations being implemented by USDA are
designed to reduce the risk of BSE-carrying neural tissues
from entering the food system.
Market observers have noted that concern over "mad
cow disease" is likely to spur increased interest
in beef considered to be at low risk of BSE due to the
way it is produced. For example, organic, "grass-fed,"
or "pasture-raised" beef is thought by many
to present less risk of BSE because the animals are
less likely to have consumed animal protein than industrially
raised beef. However, since the terms "grass-fed"
and "pasture-raised" lack precise legal definitions,
they offer only limited assurance regarding animals'
histories or diets. By contrast, "certified organic"
does carry a legal definition regarding production practices
and feed. Even so, concerns about how BSE may spread
from a cow to its offspring, and lack of enforcement
of feed standards for either organic or conventionally
produced beef, make it difficult for producers to prove
that any cattle are free of the disease.