Should we worry about eating beef?

COLLEGE STATION, Texas – The pictures are haunting – piles of charred livestock carcasses, and frightened farmers watching their livelihood literally go up in smoke.

England seems to have suffered the most from recent epidemics affecting some farm animals. About 2.4 million head of livestock have been destroyed in that country alone, mostly because of foot-and-mouth disease, which strikes cloven-footed animals.

Consumers are worried. Many people who don’t work in the agricultural industry and have limited contact with farming are concerned about how this crisis in the animal industry will affect them and their families.

In the past few years, both bovine spongiform encephalopathy, more often called “mad cow disease,” and foot-and-mouth disease have wiped out whole herds of cattle and other farm animals in many parts of the world and caused widespread fear in the general public.

Can we eat the meat?

Konrad Eugster, executive director of the Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory, assured consumers of some good news. He stated no health risk has been linked to eating beef from animals infected with foot-and-mouth disease.

And the only case of direct animal-to-human infection he has heard of recently involved an agricultural worker in England who was splashed with a large amount of tissue fluids from an infected cow, and ended up with some sores on his mouth.

“It was very mild,” he said.

As for BSE, the counterpart in humans is known as Creutzfeld Jakobs disease, a disease of the brain that has “been around for a long, long time,” Eugster said, long before reports of “mad cow disease” first hit the news.

But Eugster pointed out although “there is some evidence” that humans can get a new variant (nv) form of CJD from eating beef products from cattle infected with BSE, transmission has not been proven conclusively. And nv CJD is so rare that of all the millions of people who might have eaten infected meat, only about 80 cases of nv CJD have been reported.

“In contrast to classical CJD which always occurred in older people, the 80 or so people in England (who have been diagnosed in the past few years with the nv CJD) were young people in their 20s or 30s or 40s.”

Feed was questionable.

Authorities believe the recent outbreak of BSE was caused by feeding contaminated meat and bone meal to cattle. In this country and in most of Europe, “they no longer allow feeding cattle meat and bone meal back to cattle,” he said. Feed containing meat and bone meal is not fed back to the same species.

“In this country, this is a preventative rule since we don’t have a mad cow disease case,” Eugster said. “Even if we had a case of mad cow disease in the United States, it wouldn’t spread because we have this rule in place.”

Foot-and-mouth, on the other hand, spreads very fast, and containment may be the best way to keep it under control. It is a highly contagious viral disease that not only affects cattle, but also goats, sheep, swine, deer and any other cloven-footed animal.

The possibility of foot-and-mouth disease crossing the Atlantic is more of a worry than the idea of BSE coming over here, Eugster said. However, consumers don’t need to worry about getting sick from eating meat from animals that were infected with foot-and mouth disease.

In fact, they don’t even need to worry about the price of beef in the local supermarket going up. Quite the contrary, if England’s experience is any indication.

“It will do very little to the price of meat because people, at the same time, will probably be demanding less meat,” Eugster said.

In England, which was hit hardest by the effects of BSE, “because of (fears of) mad cow disease, consumer consumption (of meat) dropped 40 percent.”

Agriculture will suffer. The real worry is the effect foot-and-mouth will have on the agricultural industry in this country. When the first case of foot and-mouth is reported in this country, other countries will immediately stop importing meat products from us, he said.

“Agriculture is the No. 1 industry that helps our trade balance,” Eugster said. “The cattle industry is a $200 billion business in the United States.”

Because the export of cattle and beef, as well as other animal products, is an enormous part of the agriculture industry in this country – and because those exports will come to an immediate halt if foot-and-mouth disease strikes here – a report of the disease would “have an immediate effect on the animal industry and the economy,” he said.

The ripple effects from that event will bounce off every other industry in the country, including trucking, recreation, tourism and foreign trade.

The biggest risk, when considering foot-and-mouth disease, is how the devastation of the agricultural industry will impact the whole economy.

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