Protecting Your Family from Mad Cow Disease

Mad Cow Disease


Protecting Your Family from Mad Cow Disease

A Veterinarian’s Perspective

Our grass fed beef sales have soared since the discovery of mad cow disease in Canada this month. When events like mad cow or E.coli hit the news, families seek trusted sources for their beef.

Historically, mad cow has never been reported in cattle which are totally grass fed. The outbreak in Britain and Europe which occurred 15 years ago has been linked to the practice of using animal by-products in feeding. As a veterinarian, I know that providing cattle with their God designed diet of grass and forage results in the safest beef for families.

We have received many questions in the last couple of weeks concerning the Canadian report and about Mad Cow Disease in general. We have put a summary of these questions and facts together to help our readers have a better understanding.

What Is Mad Cow Disease?

Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), known in vernacular as Mad Cow Disease, is one of a group of transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSE). These transmissible, slowly progressive, degenerative, fatal diseases affect the central nervous system of many animals including man and cause neurological symptoms. These diseases include BSE in cattle, Scrapie in sheep, Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in elk and deer, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) in humans among others.

What Causes Mad Cow Disease?

The causative agent for these diseases have not been proven exactly, however, numerous theories exist. The leading and most accepted theory is that the diseases are caused by a prion (a protein particle). Other theories involve a virus, Spiroplasma bacteria, organophosphates, magnesium, aluminum, and the autoimmune system.

The greatest attention has been given to BSE when evidence in the 1990’s linked it to nvCJD (new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease). CJD has been recognized with worldwide distribution for at least 80 years and usually has an onset in 60-70 year olds. New variant CJD (nvCJD) was only recognized in the last decade and has been the form linked to BSE. It has been seen in young people and even children.

Though not proven how, BSE may be spread to humans. Evidence indicates that nvCJD has occurred after consuming BSE-contaminated cattle products. Evidence has also indicated that the transmission of BSE to humans is only possible with the consumption of brain, eyes, lymph nodes or spinal tissue.

The outbreak of BSE in cattle, which occurred in Britain, is believed to have started from the feeding of Scrapie-contaminated sheep meat and bone meal to cattle. This outbreak was then made worse by the practice of feeding rendered bovine meat and bone meal to young calves.
What is being done to prevent mad cow disease from occurring in the United States?
In light of the BSE case reported in Canada this last week, US agencies moved quickly to prevent any chances of BSE or nvCJD in this country. To date there have been no reported cases of Mad Cow or nvCJD in the United States.

All imports of cattle or beef from Canada have been blocked pending further investigation. This action is in addition to the regulations, which were put in place in the mid 90’s. These included blocking cattle and beef imports from all of Europe, requiring that all cattle showing any neurological signs upon USDA inspection be tested for BSE, prohibiting the use of most mammalian protein in feed, recommending that animal tissues used in drug products not come from a country with BSE, exclusion of blood from donors spending more that 6 months in England and funding research.
What can I do to protect myself and my family from mad cow disease?
The biology of TSE disease is just starting to be understood. In the absence of facts, it is easy for paranoia and fear to overcome. What is the bottom line on the safety of consuming beef in the United States today? The following guidelines are aimed at what you can do to protect yourself and your family from possible exposure to BSE prions in beef.

  • Only buy beef from a trusted source and know the country of origin (supermarkets will be required to post this information in 2004). Investigate as to how the cattle are raised, where they originate and how they are fed.  Make absolutely sure that cattle are not fed meat and bone meal (any animal by-products).
  • Consider using grass fed beef rather than industrial beef (most supermarket beef).  Most industrial cattle have gone through calf feeding, background feeding and feedlots where possible use of animal-by-products could occur.’s cattle are 100% raised in open grass pastures and we do NOT feed animal by-products.
  • Locate beef sources where the cattle are raised under one operation and can be traced to birth.  In many cases, multiple ownership (where the animal has been sold several times at the various stages of production) means the history of the animal is not known and cannot be traced.  As’s veterinarian, I personally  keep records for the care of each of our cows.
  • Acquire your beef from sources that do not use organophosphates.  In England, circumstantial evidence has indicated that the heavy use of organophosphates in hops fields where cattle then graze showed a cluster of cases of nvCJD.  Some speculate that a link exists.  At we never use organophosphates.
  • Purchase beef from USDA inspected processing operations where cattle are individually processed at a rate slow enough to allow the inspector to observe the cow prior to and during processing. Where care is taken to inspect that each carcass has had all spinal tissue removed.  A facility, which employs skilled butchers to process and package the beef individually reduces risk.  Currently over 95% of the beef in the US is processed at the rate of 400 plus cows per hour by unskilled labor.  Further, the practice is to combine beef products from many different cows.  At our cattle are processed individually and the beef is never mixed.
  • Consume ground beef made from whole muscle tissue rather than from beef trimmings, which are often combined from many animals.  Prions concentrate in the brain, spinal cord and central nervous system tissue.  The consumption of these tissues (even inadvertently), if the cow proved to be infected with BSE, is the supposed link to nvCJD in humans.  BSE prions have not been found in the muscle tissue where steaks and roasts are derived.  At our ground beef is made from 100% muscle tissue and is individually packaged.
  • When using industrial beef avoid sausage blends (often contain spinal tissues), and steak cuts which include the spinal column such as T-bone steaks.  The meat of the T-bone is safe, but the notch at the top of the T-bone could contain spinal tissue if improperly processed. At, our sausage and steaks are from 100% muscle tissue. Our gourmet steak cuts are free of bones.
  • Surgical instruments and blood transfusions can transmit TSE.
  • Supplements often contain animal tissues (brain, glands, and organ meat).  Bovine tissues are also used in many cosmetics.  United States sources should be safe, but imported supplements may come from countries, which have BSE.

When recalls of beef from E.coli and mad cow disease occur, small grass farmers rest peacefully knowing their beef is safe and NOT among the group at risk. For families who want to purchase the safest beef, my recommendation is to seek committed grass fed beef farmers using natural rotational grazing farming methods and who properly process their cattle.

Patricia Whisnant, DVM
Grass Farmer and Veterinarian

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