With over 229 cases since its first inception in the early 90’s, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, know publically as mad cow disease, has created mayhem in the global economic market accounting for a $4.7 billion dollar loss in the US beef industry in 2004 as well as resulting in tragic worldwide health implications.
BSE is a neurodegenerative infectious zoonotic disease, which slowly affects and attacks the central nervous system. While the infectious agent is still among debate, the prevailing theory is a misfolded protein known as a prion while others suggest a possible viral prognosis. The first reported case came in 1986 in Britain and by the mid 90’s spread to approximately 150,000 cattle. It wasn’t until 1996 when mad cow disease was discovered to be zoonotic, linked to a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, another rare neurodegenerative disease affecting approximately 1 in a million people, when huge economic fallout arose. Global distribution of cattle halted and companies thriving off the beef industry fell into economic peril. The $100 billion dollar business crumbled and caused the near destruction of Britain’s cattle industry.
The origin of BSE in cattle is presumed to be from cattle feed contamination from infected animal carcass. Its move to a zoonotic disease infecting humans is believed to be a result of ingestion of contaminated cattle nervous tissue that was previously infected with the disease. Epidemiological studies have not pointed towards any specific region or product that isolates this disease which points to the practice of slaughterhouses as the possible agent. Before the rise of BSE, there were no mandated sanctions on slaughterhouses and what they could and could not include in their meat. Vertebral columns, spinal cord fragments, and ganglia were often included in their paste in proportions of up to 30 percent. Following the first case of mad cow in the US in December 2003, agencies acted quickly to set up mandated restrictions and impose regulations including the prohibition of tissues used from the vertebral column as well as any nervous tissue testing.
To date, four confirmed American deaths have occurred as a result of mad cow disease. While strict regulations have controlled the situation, mad cow disease still presents a challenge due to its inability to be treated and perplexed pathology. Since December 2003 when the first case of mad cow reached the US, over 30 countries stopped beef trade with the US resulting in a loss of jobs and industry. My take is that it is important that government continues to impose strict testing protocol and as well as keeper a closer look into agricultural activities (most importantly slaughterhouses). While this will ensure to prevent further outbreaks, it will be interesting to see further research that will give a definitive answer to the underlying pathology of mad cow disease.