Mad cow disease: What you need to know
April 25th, 2012
10:02 AM ET

Mad cow disease: What you need to know

After Tuesday's announcement confirming a case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), sometimes referred to as "mad cow disease," in a dairy cow in California, you may want a refresher course in mad cow basics.

It's important to keep in mind that U.S. health officials said the public risk posed by BSE is extremely low, and that residents don't need to take any specific precautions.

Here are the facts:

- BSE is a transmissible, degenerative and fatal disease affecting the central nervous system of adult cattle. The disease is of concern to public health officials because it can cause variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or vCJD, a fatal brain disorder in humans.

CNN senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen has met a victim of vCJD and she talks about that here.

- The infected tissue in animals with BSE is concentrated in the brain, spinal cord and some parts of the central nervous system. It can be spread to humans who eat these parts of the cow. The bacteria can also spread through meat that has come in contact with infected tissue or that has been processed in contaminated machinery.

- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the chance of humans actually contracting mad cow disease is extremely slim - less than one in 10 billion. In the years after variant CJD was first reported in 1996, 195 patients across 11 countries - including at least two cases reported in the United States - have been diagnosed, according to the CDC.

For those who may still be concerned about eating beef, the consumer advocacy group Consumeraffairs.com has come up with some precautions:

- Avoid brains, neck bones and beef cheeks
- Avoid bone marrow and cuts of beef that are sold on the bone
- Choose boneless cuts of meat, and for ground beef, choose only meat that is ground on-site in the store

The group also says that unlike most other meat-borne illnesses such as E. coli bacteria, cooking does not kill mad cow disease.

Can mad cow disease be a danger to pets? Short answer: it depends on the pet.

The Food and Drug Administration says that with the exception of cats, no pets are known to be able to contract mad cow disease.

Cats are susceptible to a feline version of BSE. The FDA has reported that cats in the United Kingdom have contracted the disease, probably through cat food and meat scraps.

soundoff (915 Responses)
  1. Warren

    BSE is a prion, a form of improperly folded protein. It is NOT a BACTERIAL infection as implied in the second "fact" above.

    April 25, 2012 at 10:35 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Dantheman

      This finally explains my cats behavior LMAO!

      April 25, 2012 at 12:43 | Report abuse |
    • 01566

      You are absolutely right.

      Because the US beef industry refuses to do 100% testing of even sick cows we have no idea how many other cases there have been. In most other countries the whole herd the animal; came from would be killed and tested but not here.

      April 25, 2012 at 13:14 | Report abuse |
    • Jon

      195 cases and there is 6 billion people on the planet..... So "less than 1 in 10 billion chance" sounds more like false public reassurance. Ah.. math my old friend where ever have you gone? Also the link in text "Centers for Disease Control and Prevention" has a nice graph by year that proves false the estimate and that even the yearly chances for just North America would be higher.

      April 25, 2012 at 15:42 | Report abuse |
    • Airn

      First thing that annoyed me about this was that they called BSE a bacteria... it is not a bacteria nor a virus. it is a prion! And for those who are now curious a prion is a "self protein" but in the case of BSE(mad cow) it is a mutated prion that doesnt function proterly. One of these prions bumps into a normal prion and changes it into a "bad" prion and so on.there is no treatment, cure, vaccine or anything of that kind.

      April 25, 2012 at 15:48 | Report abuse |
    • YBavg?


      The 1 in 10B odds might be right, we just don't know how it was calculated. If we assume your method (no of cases / no of humans), then we are also assuming that all 6B of us have the same chance of getting it with no accounting for what type of beef is eaten (if at all) and how often we consumed it. One possibility is that the odds were calculated as: no of confirmed cases / no of times beef was consumed.

      April 25, 2012 at 16:06 | Report abuse |
  2. Eliminate worry. Go veg.

    One less disease to be of concern when we consume a plant based diet is this horrific Cruetzfeld Jakob's disease. We also lessen heart disease, obesity and many forms of cancer when we eliminate animal based foods. The animals escape a life of confinement, filth and abuse. We emerge with more energy, clarity of mind and prospects for a longer life in a more fit body. Vegetarianism is humane and, in the light of animal-borne/blood-borne disease, it simply makes sense.

    April 25, 2012 at 10:43 | Report abuse | Reply
    • wheres the beef

      Yes and lets only eat organic vegetables while were at it snd dance around the campfire on acid. Ill stick with medium rare steak, bacon and fur coats. Im plenty fit and clear of mind and have the same prospect for a long life as you.

      April 25, 2012 at 11:45 | Report abuse |
    • Cows eat grass

      You do realize that cows don't eat meat and this particular cow still got "mad cow disease" from eating only "veggies" .... hmmm...

      April 25, 2012 at 11:48 | Report abuse |
    • ser

      how do you know plants don't cry or feel pain when they are being cut down for food or chewed in your mouth?

      April 25, 2012 at 12:16 | Report abuse |
    • but

      You do realize that cows don't eat meat and this particular cow still got "mad cow disease" from eating only "veggies" .... hmmm...

      im by no way a vegetarian, but the origination of mad cow disease is suspected to be from cattle that were fed meat substances.

      April 25, 2012 at 12:23 | Report abuse |
    • trollerific

      if you love animals so much, why do you keep eating all their food?

      April 25, 2012 at 12:39 | Report abuse |
    • Dantheman

      Well, if it's just an improperly formed protein why is it contagious? Why can't Hydrachloric acid in my stomach digest it just like every other protein? This is a good reason to close all rendering plants and stop using animal fats in products like makeup, lotion, etc..... ad infinitum. LOL.
      Vegetarians die of vitamin deficiency without meat. Look into it, see your future. You need b6, b12.... You'll find out soon enough. Nice leather shoes veggie...

      April 25, 2012 at 12:40 | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      I've always wondered... do vegans eat honey? It's one of the rare non-flesh, invertebrate animal products.

      April 25, 2012 at 12:47 | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      And @ Dantheman, it's an improperly folded protein that causes other proteins to fold improperly, thus filling your cells with junk. Eventually, the junk bursts the cell. If the junk ends up in someone else, it makes their proteins fold improperly too.

      April 25, 2012 at 12:49 | Report abuse |
    • Fredrico

      Cows on cattle ranches eat meat. They take dead cows and grind them up, bone and all and put it into their feed, they also scrape all that manure into the feed (8% protein) and feed it back to them. Look on youtube for 'the mad cowboy'. He was sued along with Oprah Winfrey for saying such things on her show, and they won their case after 6 years in court because they couldn't prove anything he said was untrue. That's a credible enough source for me.

      April 25, 2012 at 13:28 | Report abuse |
    • ducknrun

      Sure. Because all the vegetarians I've met are svelte, fit and of sound mind. More like caked in a body overloaded with carbs and overbearingly elitist.

      April 25, 2012 at 13:42 | Report abuse |
    • AnimalSci2011

      Acually replying to Fredrico here. Um gets your facts straight bud this is only a disease that can be transmitted from one cow to another by the second cow consuming the spinal components of the first cow. Since I believe it was 2006 it is illegal in the US to feed cows any biproduct of the cattle processing industry. You can't feed cows any meat or bone meal from a ruminant animal. It only works in that way. This is very likely a random event that who knows how it happened somebody mixed up a feed that they used the wrong batch of meal, mistakes happen. We in America are so large and produce so much food that we can't be exact every time, no matter how much we elitists want to think we can. Its going to happen.

      April 25, 2012 at 13:49 | Report abuse |
    • allenwoll

      Herbicides !

      April 25, 2012 at 15:17 | Report abuse |
    • Kim

      "Bone Meal" is used for fertilizer in organic farming, so eating organic fruits and vegetables could be as dangerous

      April 26, 2012 at 00:25 | Report abuse |
    • Kristin

      @ cows eat grass- You need to go do a little research to find out where your food comes from. Most cows are raised on feedlots where they eat corn, soy, and rendered parts of other animals (which includes feces). The rendered animals they eat were probably partially fed rendered cow parts so it's quite possible for this disease to circle around. Additionally, although it's not "allowed" rendered cow parts themselves often do make their way directly into cattle feed. Get a clue!

      April 26, 2012 at 09:13 | Report abuse |
    • What?

      @ Kristin

      Quote: "Additionally, although it's not "allowed" rendered cow parts themselves often do make their way directly into cattle feed." Have a reliable source for this, do you? Maybe you need to "Get a clue!" It has been illegal for every part of a 'cow' – other than blood, milk, and pure fat – to be included in feed produced for cattle since 1997. I'm not naive enough to think that it never happens, but to say that it happens "often" is probably just wrong. The FDA mandates separate processing lines for preparing feed for ruminant animals so the chance of accidental contamination – and purposeful adulteration – are minimized. And you forgot to include "grass" on the list of things they eat in a feedlot.

      April 26, 2012 at 12:42 | Report abuse |
    • Hugh Jass

      "We emerge with more energy, clarity of mind and prospects for a longer life" and a vampiric desire to "recruit" more victims into your Lifestyle. Please demonstrate some of that clarity of mind, because all I ever hear from vegetarians is "Join Us! Become One of Us! Eat a Root!" Please stop; we don't want to eat more brussels sprouts and spinach and we know you hate it yourselves(half of your diet is tofu pressed into meat shapes). There isn't enough farmland on this planet to feed all the humans unless we kill of the animals and cut down the forests. Do the math in between sprout-munching and you'll see what I mean.

      July 5, 2012 at 11:02 | Report abuse |
  3. Leonard

    You are missing the story. Look into the cluster of human Cruetzfeld Jakob's disease cases in Marin County CA.

    April 25, 2012 at 11:32 | Report abuse | Reply
    • klyn

      That's what I asked today- why 2 that I know of- one a close friend. I want to know more, but agree that this article is full of wrong info.

      April 25, 2012 at 14:13 | Report abuse |
  4. Jason Hogaboam

    As just mentioned, the majority of CJD is familial and not from the environment (i.e. eating meat). A recent Harvard study discovered that it is the preservatives (mainly nitrates) in meat products like sausage and bacon that cause cardiovascular disease and preservative-free meat is actually good for you. This may be why many of my vegetarian friends who eat fake meat that is chock full of preservatives are overwieght and have heart disease. Keep in mind that plants are living beings as well and are capable of being abused. What is more valuable? A mouse or a 4000 year old Pacific Yew? Let's face it, PETA people are hypocrits.

    April 25, 2012 at 11:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. MM Nurse

    your entire atricle and it's recommendations lost any credibility when you refered to a "bacteria" as the cause of mad cow disease. Did you just make that up or what? People may take your blog seriouly by mistake.

    April 25, 2012 at 12:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Portland tony

    The reference to bacteria just blew any credibility the author or article had. Mad Cow is classified as Prion Disease and to this day there is no definitive cause albiet some interesting theories.

    April 25, 2012 at 12:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Fredrico

    I strongly suggest you get on youtube and look up 'the mad cowboy'. Watch some of his material about this disease. As a devoted steak lover, it scared the crap out of me. This disease is so resilient that when the incinerated cows in the UK at 1000 degrees F the ashes were still contaminated with MCD prions and the stored them in abandoned blimp hangars. You can't kill prions because they aren't alive to begin with. He also says that it can take 2 to 50 years for you to get sick if you get infected. There seems to be a strong relation between MCD and Alzheimer's so the figures the CDC gives could be way off.

    April 25, 2012 at 13:22 | Report abuse | Reply
    • What?

      It is highly unlikely that if affected meat tissue was "incinerated" at 1000F, that it would still contain active prions. A temperature that high is sufficient to destroy all organic matter, leaving only MINERALS behind – a process called "ashing" (because all it leaves are ashes). Since proteins – including prions – are organic matter, it is near impossible that they would survive an ashing process. And minerals don't function as prions.

      April 26, 2012 at 10:35 | Report abuse |
    • Hugh Jass

      @What, no he's right. You can reduce the meat to ash and the prions are still there. Don't know the temp but way hotter than cooking temps. They are bizarre little things and cooking doesn't kill them.

      July 5, 2012 at 11:19 | Report abuse |
  8. Common Sense

    Thanks to the commenters who pointed out the facts (that BSE is a prion disease). It can be transferred from eating contaminated (nervous system) tissues from sick animals. However, a ban has been in place on feeding ruminants ANY such tissues (from ANY ruminant, healthy or not) since 1997, which stops the progression "chain" of this disease in our cattle. Some rare cases, like the one identified this week, can and do occur spontaneously because of genetic defects or nutations within indiviudal cattle - they were just dealt a bad hand of cards, much as humans can and do occasionally suffer from rare diseases.

    April 25, 2012 at 13:26 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Shirley

      Very good to Common Sense! Which we have to have when purchasing meat, driving are vehicles to crossing the street. Something is going to get us sooner or later. We just hope our inspectors can keep ahead of things that will harms any human. Tell China to stop using lead paints.. Year after year.. Or Metals that should never be used in product peroid, and are being imported to the United States. Lots of fatal things to be aware of...

      April 25, 2012 at 17:09 | Report abuse |
    • Hugh Jass

      Heck, the prions could be passed down from the mother or grandmother. They have to hit the brain just right to start tearing it up; you can have this a long time before it becomes noticeable.

      July 5, 2012 at 11:21 | Report abuse |
  9. D. Ventimiglia

    It's dissappointing that a pseudo-expert is putting together an article trying to educate the lay person. BSE is not caused by a bacteria". It's cause is an infectious protein, referred to as a prion. there is an order of magnitude difference in size alone.

    April 25, 2012 at 13:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. klyn

    If this disease is so rare, why have TWO women died of it since January 2012 in my town of 57, 000 people ?

    April 25, 2012 at 14:10 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Rhonda Johnson

      Yeah! My question too!! My mom died of it in Redding, CA in March 2012. What are the chances of that.

      April 25, 2012 at 17:32 | Report abuse |
    • jlv

      Did they die of BSE aka vCJD or did they die of CJD? They are similar but not the same. Much in the same way that there are flu variants, ebola variants, or variants of types of cars. But you wouldn't say that a person who dies in a car crash is the same thing as a person that died because they got run over. Both are vehicle deaths but they died from different causes.

      April 26, 2012 at 18:26 | Report abuse |
  11. Thomas

    So one cow walks up to another cow and says, Have you heard about the outbreak of mad cow desease?". The second cow looks at the fist and says, "Woof, Woof "

    April 25, 2012 at 15:10 | Report abuse | Reply
    • YBavg?

      Ya know why they call it PMS? ....

      April 25, 2012 at 16:11 | Report abuse |
    • YBavg?

      Becaused Mad Cow Disease was (obviously) already taken.

      April 25, 2012 at 16:12 | Report abuse |
  12. allenwoll

    The infectious agent is known as a PRION.

    It may be possible to deal with it with Ultra-High-Pressure processing : See -


    April 25, 2012 at 15:15 | Report abuse | Reply
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  14. Rhonda Johnson

    The scary part of this is that no one knows how the cow got the disease and my mom died of CJD on March 12 this year and it has been confirmed by an autopsy and the final analysis is still being formulated. There is no explaination how she got it but the autopsy confirmed that it was not varient CDJ which is what you get from eating Mad Cow. ~~ Makes me wonder how she came down with it. She is an American Citizen and has been all her life. She grew up and lived in California most of her life and some in Oregon. I can say that to push eating meat in any way is a huge responsibility especially after watching my mom die from this devastating disease which renders family completely helpless as there is no treatment and no relief. It only took her 7 weeks to die and it was an excruciating process for all. I think people need to be aware that this disease is present among us and we need to figure out how to safe guard ourselves from it and if not eating meat or dairy reduces the chances of contracting the disease than this is a small sacrafice for people to make. I understand that the dairy and meat industry will suffer but is it our responsibilty to risk our lives and the lives of our children to support them?

    April 25, 2012 at 17:28 | Report abuse | Reply
    • klyn

      I am so sorry about your mom. It was horrible to lose my friend in less than 10 weeks. I don't like it that people are making light of this in the comment section- this is real, people are dying and there doesn't seem to be answers. Maybe we'll get some out of it now??

      April 25, 2012 at 17:48 | Report abuse |
    • What?

      I am sorry for your loss. It must be noted, however, that "classic" CJD and "mad cow disease" aren't the same illness. They have very similar symptoms and both are ultimately fatal – but a BSE-infected animal is not the source of classic CJD in humans.

      April 26, 2012 at 10:39 | Report abuse |
    • jlv

      So you want people to stop eating animal products because your family member died from something that is often inherited and has nothing to do with animal products. I don't understand your logic. I'm sorry for your loss but I can't follow advice that makes no sense.

      April 26, 2012 at 18:43 | Report abuse |
  15. Sharp

    "The bacteria can also spread through meat........" Why should I pay any attention to anything else in your supposedly informative article? A Prion is NOTHING like a bacteria. Massive fail.

    April 25, 2012 at 21:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Belinda

    Okay, let's lay down some facts right away:

    Yes, contaminated beef can increase the risk of VARIANT CJD. However, those of you who lost loved ones to CJD have probably witnessed an entirely different kind of CJD – SPORADIC CJD.

    Sporadic CJD can happen at any time for no reason at all. The average age to contract sCJD is 62. So for those cases of CJD you're referring to in California, or in loved ones...it is more than likely that it is sCJD. What's a good way to know? Well, for one thing, the amount of time it takes for someone to die. Sporadic CJD can take as little as four months, while Variant CJD can take as long as fourteen months. For another, the age. The median age for vCJD to strike is 29, while the median age for sCJD is 62.

    I won't deny that hearing about mad cow has scared me out of eating beef for at least a while, but before you start drawing up huge, possible conspiracy theories, look up CJD first. The facts are:

    – 85% of the time, CJD occurs for no reason at all. This is because CJD is a genetic mutation. The brain is very sensitive, and anything that could warp it can do so without warning and without cause.
    – 5 to 15% of the time, CJD is inherited.
    – Less than 1% of all CJD cases is variant.
    – While everyone becomes at risk for variant CJD should he or she consume beef, only a special gene marker can make that risk extremely high. It explains why only 175 people in the UK have died of vCJD when obviously millions of citizens were likely exposed to contaminated beef back in the 80s.

    April 25, 2012 at 23:18 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Anjel

      Good to know that my common sense logic is not that bad after all Unfortunately there is lots of (and i mean rlaley) lots of work before me until I'll be able to do it myself. Anyway, could you please share your thoughts and say which way would you go? Would you draw a shadow casting object on top of a shadow itself or would you use a pixel shader to remove portions of a shadow that cover the shadow casting object? Or maybe some other way? Any clues?

      May 24, 2012 at 20:09 | Report abuse |
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    • Hogan's Goat

      Eat tainted beef and die

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  21. Stuart Munro

    This article significantly misrepresents the threat level of BSE.

    One chance in10 billlion it states. There are roughly 10 billion people in the world today, but rather more than one has contracted prion protein diseases like CJD. Britain estimates over a thousand people were infected during the course of its BSE outbreak. That's a lot more than one in ten billion.

    Ok, so it's a rare disease, what's the beef? It's untreatable, and a nasty way to die. Check out Kuru in humans, Scrapie in sheep, and Chronic Wasting Disease in elk. They're all essentially the same thing.

    You should in particular read the accounts of Creutzfeld Jakob transmission on autoclaved surgical instruments. Because prion proteins are not alive, conventional therapies like drugs are completely ineffective. Cooking meat doesn't destroy them either. Prion protein diseases are not a laughing matter.

    Most vCJD will go undetected in the US because some of the symptoms are similar to Alzheimers, and autopsies in such cases are rare. But the main reason is that your meat industry – the same guys that killed half your army in Cuba all those years ago with embalmed beef, have prevented the implementation of basic public health measures.

    April 26, 2012 at 16:12 | Report abuse | Reply
    • What?

      Quote: "But the main reason is that your meat industry . . . have prevented the implementation of basic public health measures."

      How do you figure that? BSE was first identified in the UK in 1986. It was soon discovered that this was not an 'isolated' occurrence in the cattle in the UK and many other European countries. It took years to figure out what was going on, because the cause was something that had never really been adequately researched prior to that outbreak. When it was found that contaminated feed seemed to be the vehicle of transmission, a ban on including all known 'potential' sources of transmission was enacted (see changes in allowed materials in ruminant feed [enacted in 1997]). In addition, all known 'high-risk' materials are required to be removed from beef carcasses at the time of slaughter – these include brain, spinal cord, and specific ganglia. Additionally, a complete ban on the use of dead or 'downer' cattle for human food was introduced. The meat industry didn't prevent the implementation of any of these. They would have been stupid to try, because it would have immediately eliminated the export market for US beef. So your statement is an out-and-out lie.

      Did you read any of the FACTUAL details of this case? It appears to have been completely SPORADIC – it did not arise because of contaminated feed, it did not arise because of 'contact' with other infected animals, it literally came out of nowhere – quite possibly a natural mutation like any other that occurs RANDOMLY in "the real world".

      April 27, 2012 at 12:44 | Report abuse |
    • Belinda

      How about some facts:

      1. The mad cow in this particular Holstein was sporadic; ergo, a random genetic mutation involving prion growth. The same can actually happen with humans involving CJD, called sporadic CJD. Meaning it can happen for absolutely no reason. This particular type of CJD occurs in one of of every million Americans and is in no way related to mad cow.

      2. You claim a thousand people in Britain were infected. If you mean they showed signs of infection, then that's absolutely incorrect. Statistics show, from 1996 to 2011, 175 people in England have died from variant CJD (which is different from sporadic CJD, keep in mind). There is a theory that, according to appendix research, 1 in every 4,000 Brits contain the prion needed to cause CJD. However, that does not mean the body will act on the prion growth, meaning some people are simply carriers of the prion.

      3. On a similar note to #2, theories suggest that only 40% of the population in England have the appropriate genetic set-up to obtain the fast-acting vCJD (between 10-20 years of incubation). Theories also pertain to research of 60% of the populace being able to carry the infection for at least 50 years. By that same token, certain people maintain a resistance to vCJD. Honestly, it's the same with all prion diseases, including Alzheimer's and dementia – some people are more susceptible to it than others.

      Do I want to eat beef for a while? No. But the sporadic occurrences of mad cow (which have attributed to all three cases of local American cows with BSE) are the risk you take when you have a burger. The 1 in 10 billion statistic pertains to "one out of every ten billion SERVINGS OF BEEF," not 10 billion people. So you have to eat a ton of beef to even be remotely susceptible to vCJD.

      Please remember that there are four different types of CJD. Two of them, the more common ones, have nothing to do with BSE. You don't believe me? Do your research. You'll find I used sources.

      April 27, 2012 at 20:58 | Report abuse |
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.