US wary of Mad Cow Disease

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | February 5, 2001

It's a horrific, incurable illness that eats holes in the brain and painfully kills its victims in a matter of months. Mad cow disease, a cattle-borne malady that gets passed to humans through ingestion of infected meat, has killed some 80 people in Britain.

It hasn't been spotted in this country. Still, U.S. government agencies are developing a detailed response plan, even while saying the chance of an outbreak in this country is remote.

In its human form, mad cow disease -- or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) -- is called the "new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease."

The cattle industry has been monitoring mad cow disease since 1984, when it first appeared in a cow in Britain, said Alisa Harrison,

spokesperson for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "In 1985 we sent a team to the United Kingdom to study the issue," she said.

In 1996, it became a human health issue when the first person died after eating infected meat.

Now the boundaries of the mad cow epidemic seem to be becoming more porous, moving beyond the obvious meat and into products -- like

candy -- that contain gelatin made from beef byproducts. Containing mad cow could be harder than originally expected. And the U.S. is not

immune. Fears of mad cow disease have been depressing cattle futures on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

The disease can be spread to cows through infected feed. With that knowledge, in 1988 Britain banned the practice of feeding cattle with meal containing the ground-up remains of cows. But for the next eight years, British feed makers legally continued to export tons of potentially infected meat-and-bone meal made from pulverized cattle parts, despite concerns expressed by some government officials that such shipments risked spreading the disease abroad.

It wasn't until 1996 that Britain banned exports of meat-and-bone meal. Before that, potentially infected feed was shipped to the U.S., Thailand, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, and parts of Eastern Europe and Africa.

Although there is little evidence the disease can be passed through blood transfusions, the FDA has barred people who have spent at least six months in the U.K. between 1980 and 1996 from donating blood.

Food and Drug Administration (FDA) scientists have reported that transplants of cornea and dura mater, the membrane that encases the brain, pose a risk to patients if the donor had an undiagnosed case of mad cow. The scientists added that bone-marrow transplants, skin grafts, and donated sperm and embryos posed lesser, but unknown, risks.

Even candy isn't necessarily immune. A German-made candy was recalled in Poland two weeks ago amid fears it contained a beef-based

gelatin from cattle infected with mad cow disease. The candy, called Mamba, was among more than 9,000 food and drug products containing

beef and beef byproducts originating from 12 different European Union nations.

Stores in New York kept selling Mamba, and the FDA has said that candy poses no health risk to the public. Nevertheless, the maker of the

candy, Storck, announced it has reformulated its products to put to rest any possible consumer concerns. By the end of February, Storck will have on the shelves products made with vegetable starch instead of beef gelatin.

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