Cow herd

Marking the first case of mad cow disease in the U.S. since 2006, California officials announced the discovery earlier this week when a dead dairy cow tested positive for the fatal disease as part of a routine testing protocol.

Calling the finding a “random mutation,” the USDA suggests that there’s “no cause for alarm” over the discovery, and the agency claims the cow did not contract the disease from eating tainted food.

Natural herbivores, cows were discovered to be contracting the infectious illness in the mid-1990s due to being fed a diet that contained blood and tissue from other cows recycled into cattle feed. Mad cow (bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE) most commonly occurs in the tissue of cows where the disease-causing “misfolded proteins” (or “prions”) are found. It is fatal to cows, and in humans it causes the deadly brain disease called Creutzfeldt-Jakob (CJD) where sponge-like holes are created in the brain. Humans can contract the disease from eating tainted beef.

A 2004 investigation by the Vancouver Sun revealed that more than half of the test samples of cattle feed obtained from factory farms contained animal parts not listed in the ingredients. According to Mark A. Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute, “Outrageously, even with all we know about bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, conventional dairy farmers are still allowed to feed “milk replacer” which sometimes includes dried blood meal, a BSE risk.”

Regulations on the use of animal tissue in livestock feed have not been strictly enforced in the U.S., and while the livestock industry relies mainly on grain-based diets, there are no guarantees on food safety. “The important thing for consumers to remember is there is an alternative in the marketplace.  Organic farmers are banned from using any kind of animal byproducts in feeding their livestock.  This protection should be true of all meat and dairy production, not just organic,” says Kastel, adding, “At the same time organic farmers feed the same quality of certified organic milk to their baby calves as we feed to our children.  It’s expensive but it’s worth it.  It results in healthier, long-lived cows and safer, more nutritious milk and meat for consumers.”

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Image: Jill Ettinger