Mad Cow Disease: How the New Case Was Discovered

As meat markets panic and South Korea halts beef imports, a look at how the first BSE case in 6 years almost didn't get diagnosed.

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Despite the panic that sent shockwaves through meat markets as far away as South Korea, the latest finding of mad cow disease announced Tuesday does not appear to pose a risk to the public. It is, however, the first new case of the disease in the U.S. since 2006, and was discovered almost entirely by chance.

According to the Associated Press, tests are done on only a small portion of the dead animals that are brought to the transfer facility in Hanford, California.  The cow in question had died at one of the area’s hundreds of local dairies, but exhibited no typical outward signs of the disease, including unsteadiness, uncoordination, behavior change or low milk production. The dead cow was scheduled for USDA testing at random, eligible because it was recently deceased and at least 30 months of age when it came in April 18.

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Samples taken were sent to the University of California, which discovered that the cow could have had bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) (aka mad cow disease); a USDA lab in Iowa confirmed the results.

Mad-cow disease causes a spongy deterioration in an animal’s brain and spinal cord; it can be passed on to humans through contaminated meat, and is deadly.

Federal agricultural officials announced Tuesday that the cow had “atypical” BSE, which means it did not get the disease from eating infected cattle feed, John Clifford, the Agriculture Department’s chief veterinary officer told the Associated Press.

It has not been determined whether the cow died of disease, or whether other cows in its herd are also infected. However, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association said in a statement:

“U.S. regulatory controls are effective, and that U.S. fresh beef and beef products from cattle of all ages are safe and can be safely traded due to our interlocking safeguards.” The California Department of Public Health and the Department of Food and Agriculture also reassured the public that the beef supply is safe.”

Although most international markets have heeded that reassurance, retailers in South Korea’s supermarket chains Home Plus and Lotte Mart temporarily halted sales of U.S. beef to calm anxieties among South Koreans.

So what’s next? California and federal officials will investigate the case, starting with tests of other cows that lived in the same feeding herd. And as James Culler, director of the UC Davis dairy food safety laboratory said to the Associated Press, we may just have to wait a see.

“It’s appropriate to be cautious, it’s appropriate to pay attention and it’s appropriate to ask questions, but now let’s watch and see what the researchers find out in the next couple of days.”

MORE: Government: New Case of Mad Cow Disease in California