Don’t Freak Out About Beef Trade With Mad Cow Countries

The horrifying disease has caused nations to halt beef imports over as little as a single reported case.

Illustration by Addison Eaton

To anyone who follows the business of red meat in America (beyond shoving it down their maw), 2015 got off to a controversial start, as the U.S. government announced that we’re going to start importing beef from Ireland again. This probably sounds like some minor, niche agricultural issue until you consider why we stopped eating Irish cows back in 1996: mad cow disease. After two decades of closure and paranoia that transformed global agricultural markets, by now opening our meat gates to the Emerald Isle, America is declaring that it’s once again ready to swap meat with the whole of Europe.

But this decision has people worried, because the U.S.’s decision to resume trade doesn’t mean that Europe has defeated mad cow. Cases of the disease still crop up from time to time, raising the specter of a new outbreak in America. But the worrywarts have nothing to fear, thanks to meat screenings on both sides of the Atlantic and the statistical impossibility of mad cow infecting the type of beef we’ll be importing. Instead, this deal will just be a boon for farmers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Yet their worry is understandable given just how sinister mad cow is as a disease. More properly known as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), mad cow is a degenerative disease that eats away at an animal’s nervous system, punching holes in the brain and spine. Caused by unwitting cannibal cows eating other cows’ brain and spine tissue (which gets mixed in with their feed and contains the irregular and heat-sterilization-resistant prion protein), the disease can lie dormant until an animal is at least two years old, then begins manifesting behavioral disorders and ends in inevitable death.

Human consumption of beef contaminated by mad cow-riddled nervous tissue can result in Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD). The often-fatal affliction similarly damages the nervous system, resulting in memory issues, behavioral changes, and cognitive impairment. Cases of the disease started popping Europe throughout the 1980s, only to metastasize into a massive epidemic around 1996. The outbreak led to the deaths of about 226 people from CJD, the prophylactic slaughter of around 3.7 million cows in the U.K. alone, and the transformation of the world’s cattle markets. Yet despite border closures, the disease continued to spread, demonstrating its resilience and the gaps in early monitoring and detection schemes. It turned up in America in 2003, causing the recall of 10,000 pounds of beef, reforms against feeding cattle with the spinal or neural tissue of other ruminants, and even more stringent inspections.

This cow doesn't have BSE, but she looks pretty mad anyway. Photo by John Haslam via Flickr

In recent years, through embargoes, culls, and screenings, we’ve gotten the numbers down to a dozen or two annual cases of BSE globally. Most of them are isolated, like those in America in 2006 and 2012—so effectively controlled that they don’t spread or cause much panic. Yet our fear of BSE is so strong that even one case can lead countries to shut down beef trade with a nation for a year or two. And Ireland had at least 9 cases of BSE detected between 2010 and 2013, which makes our decision to resume trade seem like utter madness to some.

Yet the world increasingly understands that one or two cases are not cause for national conniption fits. Recognizing how extensively Europeans monitor their cattle—checking every animal for BSE, as opposed to checking a small sample fraction as the U.S. does—and how rare contracting CJD actually was even at the height of the crisis, many nations have lifted their bans on beef from the European BSE epicenter. Even in less stringent countries, like the U.S., many seem to believe our controls are strong enough and CJD cases rare enough that one BSE-infected cow is no longer enough to shut out a trading partner.

Some argue that we may just be underreporting or mislabeling CJD cases to avoid panic and protect markets. But given how much BSE-related news we do accurately and faithfully report, and the lack of severe repercussions, it’s more likely that we’re more resilient to the epidemic than we once thought and that we’re especially good at controlling against outbreaks now. These days it seems like the only reasons a nation could conceivably issue a ban are if one case in an exporting nation snowballed into many more, if there were a lack of adequate screening at the outbreak site, or if the receiving nation didn’t have its own adequate monitoring facilities to reassess the quality of meat from prone (but basically cautious and conscientious) trading partners.

Typical Irish cow. Photo by Jeremy Noble via Flickr

Although the U.S. has been slower to act on it than other nations, America has recognized that there are countries that have had their act together (in terms of BSE at least) for years. All the way back in November 2013, the government announced that it would begin easing restrictions on European beef imports in recognition of the negligible risk and emergent international norms on BSE management. So the recent U.S. decision to start importing beef from Ireland again is not some new, radical choice. It’s the end stage of one-and-a-quarter years of foot dragging, following a prior decision to overcome paranoia and harmonize American policies with the rest of the world.

Even if there were a significant risk of BSE contamination in feedlot cattle coming from Ireland, Americans needn’t worry, as those aren’t even the cows slated for importation. The US plans to only import boneless cuts of beef in general, which have a negligible risk of contamination with spinal or neural tissue even if BSE is present in a cow. But as a net beef exporter, we don’t have much interest in importing the lower-quality and chum-fed cows that we already produce in-country. Instead we’re most likely to purchase grass-fed Irish beef (which has no risk of BSE contamination as the cows don’t eat feed with animal products in it) as a high-end product.

So yes, we are planning to import beef from a country that still has the occasional case of mad cow. No, this is not any reason to get our collective knickers in a bunch. It’s a just cause for excitement for American farmers who have a new market for their goods (although the European Union seems to dread the fact that this might mean their shelves will soon be flooded with factory-farmed, hormone-laden meats). And for the Irish it could mean up to $30 million a year in new agricultural exports. It’s a stripping away of fear to restore profitability to cattle herders. And that, so long as it does not undo our reasonable cautions and monitoring, is to be embraced

via Real Time with Bill Maher / YouTube and The Late Late Show with James Corden / YouTube

A controversial editorial on America's obesity epidemic and healthcare by comedian Bill Maher on his HBO show "Real Time" inspired a thoughtful, and funny, response by James Cordon. It also made for a great debate about healthcare that Americans are avoiding.

At the end of the September 6th episode of "Real Time, " Maher turned to the camera for his usual editorial and discussed how obesity is a huge part of the healthcare debate that no one is having.

"At Next Thursday's debate, one of the candidates has to say, 'The problem with our healthcare system is Americans eat shit and too much of it.' All the candidates will mention their health plans but no one will bring up the key factor: the citizens don't lift a finger to help," Maher said sternly.

Keep Reading Show less

There is no shortage of proposals from the, um, what's the word for it… huge, group of Democratic presidential candidates this year. But one may stand out from the pack as being not just bold but also necessary; during a CNN town hall about climate change Andrew Yang proposed a "green amendment" to the constitution.

Keep Reading Show less
Me Too Kit

The creator of the Me Too kit — an at home rape kit that has yet to hit the market — has come under fire as sexual assault advocates argue the kit is dangerous and misleading for women.

The kit is marketed as "the first ever at home kit for commercial use," according to the company's website. "Your experience. Your kit. Your story. Your life. Your choice. Every survivor has a story, every survivor has a voice." Customers will soon be able order one of the DIY kits in order to collect evidence "within the confines of the survivor's chosen place of safety" after an assault.

"With MeToo Kit, we are able to collect DNA samples and other tissues, which upon testing can provide the necessary time-sensitive evidence required in a court of law to identify a sexual predator's involvement with sexual assault," according to the website.

Keep Reading Show less

Villagers rejoice as they receive the first vaccines ever delivered via drone in the Congo

The area's topography makes transporting medicines a treacherous task.

Photo by Henry Sempangi Senyule

When we discuss barriers to healthcare in the developed world, affordability is commonly the biggest concern. But for some in the developing world, physical distance and topography can be the difference between life and death.

Widjifake, a hard-to-reach village in northwestern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with a population of 6,500, struggles with having consistent access to healthcare supplies due to the Congo River and its winding tributaries.

It can take up to three hours for vehicles carrying supplies to reach the village.

Keep Reading Show less
via Keith Boykin / Twitter

Fox News and President Trump seem like they may be headed for a breakup. "Fox is a lot different than it used to be," Trump told reporters in August after one of the network's polls found him trailing for Democrats in the 2020 election.

"There's something going on at Fox, I'll tell you right now. And I'm not happy with it," he continued.

Some Fox anchors have hit back at the president over his criticisms. "Well, first of all, Mr. President, we don't work for you," Neil Cavuto said on the air. "I don't work for you. My job is to cover you, not fawn over you or rip you, just report on you."

Keep Reading Show less