By Tom Still

MADISON – During the height of the “mad cow” scare in Great Britain, the parody newspaper “The Onion” ran a story headlined “English beef approved for Irish consumption.” The headline was good for a laugh – but it also carried a smidgeon of truth about how choices were made during the 1996 British outbreak.

Most decisions on banning imports or changing feed stocks during the British scare were made by politicians and business people, not by scientists. Those decisions were based on politics and economics rather than actual risk to human health. It is a history that should not be repeated now that mad cow disease (or bovine spongiform encephalopathy) has been discovered in a sick cow slaughtered in Washington state.

Make no mistake: “Mad cow disease” should be taken seriously. However, that’s not because of what we know about its links to a brain-wasting syndrome in humans. It’s because of what we don’t know. Fortunately, science has it within its grasp to learn more.

To this day, no one can say for sure there is a link between eating meat and Creutzfeldt-Jakob’s disease in humans. In fact, there is not direct evidence that Creutzfeldt-Jakob comes from the ingestion of contaminated beef, or that the syndrome deserves to be called the “human form” of bovine spongiform encephalopathy. We simply don’t know enough – yet.

How can scientists learn more? It starts with a much more aggressive program of testing and tracking slaughtered animals, which is the practice in Japan and Europe.

For a few pennies per pound of beef, virtually every cow slaughtered in the United States each year (about 35 million) could be tested by mad cow disease. The tests are becoming more specific, more reliable and cheaper by the day to administer. A test developed by Dr. Stanley Prusiner, a Nobel Prize-winning neurologist at the University of California at San Francisco, can process 8,000 samples in 24 hours. In Wisconsin, home to many biotech companies with testing expertise, the prospects for similar tests are good.

For cattle ranchers, universal testing should be preferable to broad-based bans on imports that could have a devastating effect on sales. During the British scare, beef farmers there lost $10 billion in sales. Imagine how big the dollar loss could be in the United States.

For consumers, universal testing would provide a sense of comfort that may not exist with today’s limited testing regimen. It may be worth 2 or 3 cents a pound to be assured your beef is free of the prions (misfolded proteins, pronounced “pree-ons”) that cause mad cow.

For scientists and public health officials, such testing would provide the platform to learn more. In Japan, where 1.2 million slaughtered cows are tested each year, scientists have already learned prions can be present in younger animals – not just animals 30 months old or older, as previously believed.

Farmers and meat packers are generally supportive of programs that boost public confidence in products they sell. For example, Holstein Association USA supports a national Farm Animal Identification and Record (FAIR) program that identifies animals at birth. The system utilizes a database to track animals with electronic ear tags from farm to farm, and eventually to slaughter. Nearly 1,400 dairy and livestock farms utilize electronic ear tags in 12 states.

“A national animal identification program like National FAIR is critical not only to food safety, but to source verification of our meat products,” said Steve Van Lannen, general manager with Packerland Packing, the largest beef company east of the Mississippi River. “We installed National FAIR ear-tag readers in our facilities three years ago.”

Animals receive a unique identification number at birth on a tag placed in the animal’s ear. Similar to a Social Security number, it stays with the animal for its lifetime and allows the animal to be traced from farm to farm.

At Wayside Dairy near Reedsville, Wis., Dave Natzke and his family manage one of the first dairies in the nation to participate in the national FAIR program. Nearly all 1,800 cows and heifers on the dairy have electronic ID tags.
The British mad cow scare was a crisis because politicians missed the opportunity hidden within. Perhaps that single mad cow in Washington state will give U.S. policymakers cause to stop the public stampede and give science a chance to ride herd.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.