Whatever happened to Mad Cow Disease?

Remember when that was the lurking neurodegenerative mass-disabling event that was gonna take us all out? Did they fix it, or was that just a trial run of COVID and they just stopped testing for it instead?

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33 Responses:

  1. dshea says:

    Government officials took action, and it worked. We stopped feeding ground up cow parts to the not-yet-ground-up cows, and started treating the brains as biohazardous waste, and that ended the transmission vector.

    Of course this only worked because there was money on the line (gotta keep buying beef) and not just something minor like people dying or becoming disabling.

    • Jon says:

      It also worked because it didn't really inconvenience the general public. Most of the regulations fell on the agriculture business; since that already had a certain amount of regulation in place, this was just a few additional rules. If the general public were involved, it was to disinfect their shoes or car tires after visiting certain places. (I spent a few weeks in the UK in the spring of 2002, about a decade after the peak of mad cow disease in Europe, and I remember seeing the remnants of these disinfecting stations in a few spots.) But they weren't asking everyone to do anything like wear masks all the time or stay at home for months or years; if fighting mad cow disease had required that level of effort from everyone we'd still be living with it today.

      • Jon says:

        And speaking of disinfecting stations, there's a bit of that today in the US. I visited Mammoth Cave in Kentucky this summer & went on a couple cave tours; both time after coming out of the cave we had to walk through a disinfecting station to clean off the soles of our shoes to fight the spread of white-nose syndrome, which is killing bats.

      • jwz says:

        So what I'm hearing is that mandating public-health-related mitigations from already-heavily-regulated businesses, industries and health-care settings is something we should maybe someday consider looking into.

        • Jon says:

          Sure, but you're not going to get anywhere without requiring them to do things that involve the public at large at which point it falls apart. With mad cow, most people didn't have to change their behavior at all. Brains weren't a popular food as I recall, so few people minded not being able to eat them anymore, and the disinfecting stations were out in the countryside & not in the cities. For most people mad cow mitigation was something that happened somewhere else, so they weren't bothered by it. I don't see that working with COVID.

      • LeoTea says:

        If you saw disinfecting stations in the UK in 2002, that would more likely be a result of the Foot and Mouth outbreak from the previous year. It caused major disruptions in the UK and Ireland, with some travel restrictions in place. There were even a few major sporting events cancelled, to prevent transmission into Ireland.

        • Jon says:

          None of the stations I saw were actually in use, though it's possible they were not as old as I thought they were.

          • tfb says:

            They definitely were F&M not mad cow if you saw them in 2002.  It was over by very early 2002 (I think the last case was 2001 sometime), but only just over.  There were significant restrictions to people living or going to non-urban areas in the UK although I'm not sure whether they were legally enforced.  Certainly culling of animals was enforced: this happened to people I know.

  2. Eric says:

    Yes, "they" (i.e. the global public health and food safety bureaucracy) fixed it, with various changes, mainly in cattle production.

    "Four cases were reported globally in 2017, and the condition is considered to be nearly eradicated"

  3. Ben says:

    Now we have CWD, which is the same thing but in deer and elk. Definitely don't eat deer or elk brains, perhaps avoid deer and elk mystery meat (like sausages). https://www.cdc.gov/prions/cwd/occurrence.html

    • cmt says:

      I'd put that more simply: "do not eat brains or mystery meat, and maybe think about your meat consumption in general", and of course avoid yellow snow.

    • Jim says:

      I know second-hand that the circulars sent out to deer and elk hunting license issuing authorities made it to actual licensed hunters, and, at least in my extended family, resulted in reasonable behavior changes in carcass preparation, cooking, and sample returns to labs awaiting results before consumption in suspect cases.

    • Carlos says:

      Yes, this is an odd one.  It scared people up and down the Maritimes for months, was investigated six ways from Sunday, and the eventual report, surrounded by controversy and rumours, decided it was a mass socially-transmitted hallucination/confabulation and that there never was an actual disease/condition at all.


  4. BottyGuy says:

    In 1997, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) implemented regulations that prohibit the feeding of most mammalian proteins to ruminants, including cattle. This feed ban is the most important measure to prevent the transmission of disease to cattle.  In 2008, the ban was strengthened by prohibiting the inclusion of SRMs (brains and spinal cords from animals 30 months of age or older) in any animal feed. The 2008 rule also prohibits the use of entire carcass of cattle not inspected and passed for human consumption, unless the cattle are less than 30 months of age, or the brains and spinal cords have been removed.

    • BottyGuy says:

      My understanding from my local butcher is that meat processors generally remove and destroy the brains and spinal cords regardless of age.  Though I suppose you can find one that'll sell you young brains.

  5. Martin says:

    As someone who grew up in the UK, I have always been ineligible for donating blood in the US due to Mad Cow. It has therefore been of great ongoing interest to me, not least as someone who already has a worry of database worms getting into my brain.

    The theory was/is that it can take 50 years for symptoms to manifest as vCJD. Wikipedia [1] states that this theory is partially based on an epidemic in PNG of the similar disease kuru some years after the practice of cannibalism (of a relative who had recentily died) had been banned. However, there is also evidence that cannibalism was still being practised long after the ban, so 50 years may be too high.

    Today I learned that a man from New York developed vCJD in 2015 from eating squirrel brains. This followed an epidemic in Kentucky in 1997, also due to eating squirrel brains.[2]. I guess I'll have to scrap plans to hand them out to kids on the 31st, then.

    But today I also learned, whilst googling this, that as of 3 weeks ago I can now donate blood in the US![3]

    Off to the donation center with my tainted blood I go!

    [1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Variant_Creutzfeldt%E2%80%93Jakob_disease#Epidemiology
    [2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Variant_Creutzfeldt%E2%80%93Jakob_disease#Society_and_culture
    [3] https://www.redcrossblood.org/local-homepage/news/article/why-there-are-travel-related-restrictions-for-donating-blood-.html

    • Josh says:

      As a U.S. military brat who spent a few years in Germany as a child, I am also unable to donate blood due to my apparently latent vCJD tendencies from the UK outbreak oh so many years ago.

    • david konerding says:

      Working with prions (I worked for a guy who collaborated with Prusiner, who discovered and characterized them) is no joke.  Even when they had an accelerated, simplified mouse model, the experiments involved running 2+ months and counting how many mice died.  Even infected mice often took a very long time to show symptoms.

      The amount of experiments required to get the scientific community to believe that prions were real was enormous.  More than should have been required.  It's actually really hard to get mainstream science to change directions when you question the fundamentals, as prions do.  Many Scientists will double- and triple- down against anything that upsets the status quo.  This has been a theme I have observed many times in my career.

      • Carlos says:

        Prions, and prion disease, are one of those things that are way the fuck scarier than anything in thriller/horror movies.  They feel like they shouldn't even be real.

        "A misfolded protein causes other proteins it contacts to also mis-fold in the same way, causing a chain reaction which causes clumping, brain deterioration, and death..."  is something you might have read in a sequel to The Andromeda Strain.


    • Elusis says:

      I believe my 2 weeks in France in 2019 may have just tipped me over the "3 months in a span of a lifetime" limit. But when I went to donate due to pandemic shortages, that question wasn't on the list.  (Anemia knocked me out after 3 donations unfortunately; still trying to get back up to a consistent-enough level to donate regularly.)

  6. jwd says:

    Vestiges of mad cow still exist in the UK: on a just completed trip pub staff were appalled when companions requested burgers medium rare - saying they could have well done or none and citing the mad cow history as an explanation. Despite our attempts to be masked whenever we were in public places, my wife ended up contracting COVID there, however  - so welcome to that new normal.

    • Line Noise says:

      When I lived in the UK my local pub was the opposite. When ordering the burger they'd warn you that the default was medium rare but that they'd cook it well done if requested.

    • Doctor Blood says:

      One of the scariest things about prions is how much energy it takes to denature them, which also means that well-done vs raw doesn't even matter - if it's in the meat you're already screwed.

      • Ingvar says:

        Memory says you need to get the prions up to above 180°C, at which point your beef patty is a dried-out puck, with a well-charred outside. I may be a bit low on the temperature, actually.

  7. prefetch says:

    The atypical version has popped up in a few places in recent times. 'Atypical BSE, especially in older cattle, is considered a lower risk than the classical form of the disease and [is] naturally occurring.'

    Those numbers though: Brazil exports an average of 71,000 tonnes of beef to China each month. 60,000 tonnes to America.

  8. jcurious says:

    Looks like blood donation deferrals related to mad cow are being cancelled starting this month!  

    • John Styles says:

      People who lived in Britain can now give blood in Australia as they have looked at Britain and decided that there's nothing on the general behaviour of the British population over the last 10 years or so that gives any cause for concern ha ha

  9. 1

    Mad Cow disease is yesterday's news. The new hotness in Zoonotic Prion Diseases is Chronic Wasting Disease which hops from Deer to human via venison.  https://www.cdc.gov/prions/cwd/index.html

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