mad cow disease

Issue in Brief

After a Canadian cow walked over the US border with mad cow disease in May 2003, the international health scare finally hit American shores. But after a few years of trade tussles with Canada and Japan - as well as efforts to protect against the disease's spread - concern for mad cow has largely petered out.

Cows and Canada: The US immediately cut off beef and cattle from the north after the first Canadian cow tested positive in '03. Since then, seven more Canadian cows have tested positive - with the latest case in August, 2006 (AP).

On July 18, 2005 the cows started coming over the border again. The USDA planned to reopen the border to cows aged under 30 months starting March 7, but the ban was kept in place temporarily by a Montana judge, pending the start of a trial between US cattle-ranchers - who want the ban to stay in place until they have more assurances Canadian beef is safe - and the USDA (NYT). That trial is set to start on July 27th, but before it got started, an appeals judge ruled that Canadian cows should be free to roam US deli counters until the trial is over.

The Senate also voted to keep the ban in place, but with the president promising a veto and the House taking a backseat in the debate, the Senate's vote was largely symbolic.

Japan's ban. The discovery of a mad cow in Washington State in December 2003 cued Japan and other nations to stop importing American beef. Japan partially lifted the ban in December 2005, but clamped down again in January when some unwanted cow parts accidentally came over in a shipment. After getting access to our meat-packing plants, Japan opened up its shores to US beef again in August, 2006 (AP). South Korea has been similarly schizophrenic about whether to keep importing US beef (WP).

A couple more mad cows in the US. A second cow in the US was tested positive in Texas in June, 2005 - and there was no suggestion it was a Canadian cow (WP). The latest cow to show up with the disease, in March, 2006, was living in Alabama (IHT).

Pandemic easing up. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization reports that mad cows are on the wane worldwide, with only 474 mad cows in 2005, compared to 878 in in 2004 and 1646 in 2003. Only 5 people picked up the human form in 2005, down from 9 in 2004 and 18 in 2003.

The disease. Mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is transferred when cows eat feed made from the brain or spinal cord of an animal with the illness. The untreatable disease causes brain damage and eventually death. A few cases of Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease - the human version of the disease - were thought to have crossed over from cows to humans in England during a scare in the 90s. No Americans are recorded to have picked up Creutzfeldt-Jacob from beef. (FDA)

Mad cow testing and violations: Since 2003, 670,000 cows have been tested for the disease, almost all - 650,000 - from "high risk" populations. (Congress Daily) In August 2005 the USDA tallied 1036 reports of mad cow rule violations over a 17 month period (AP). As of July 2006, testing for the disease will drop 90% - from 1000 to 100 cows a day (WP).

Updated August, 2006

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