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Mad Cow Disease and Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob (cont.)

Prevention of Mad Cow Disease and Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease

Public-health authorities maintain that the food supply in the U.S. is extremely safe. Additionally, the number of cases in the U.K. has decreased dramatically over the past decades. Still, the only absolute way to avoid infection is to entirely eliminate the consumption of beef and other animals that may be prion-infected. Milk and milk products from sheep can transmit prions; currently cow's milk has not been linked as a means of prion transmittal but few studies have been done.

The U.S. government has implemented a number of measures to prevent BSE from entering the U.S. and to prevent the spread of the disease, as outlined by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Some of these measures include the following:

  • The USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has prohibited the importation of live cattle and certain cattle products, including rendered protein products, from countries where BSE is known to exist. In 1997, due to concerns about widespread risk factors and inadequate surveillance for BSE in many European countries, these importation restrictions were extended to include all of the countries in Europe.
  • APHIS has prohibited all imports of rendered animal protein products, regardless of species, from BSE-restricted countries because of concern that feed intended for cattle may have been cross-contaminated with the BSE agent.
  • In 1997, the FDA prohibited the use of most animal protein in the manufacture of animal feeds given to cattle and other hoofed animals (known as ruminants).
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) leads a surveillance system for vCJD and performs random testing (screening) on U.S. cattle slaughtered for human consumption.
  • Additional safeguards include keeping downer animals out of the human food chain because these are at highest risk for being ill with BSE, tracking cattle from birth to slaughter in case an infected animal is found and its meat can be destroyed, and using less aggressive ways to harvest meat from carcasses to avoid brain and spinal tissues. An additional feed-control ban was implemented in the U.S. in 2009 to align U.S. practices with a similar ban enacted in Canada in 2007. These regulations prohibit the use of high-risk parts of cattle in the generation of any animal feed.

Live animal tests may provide valuable information about the level of BSE in all animals, including downer cattle and cattle aged 24 months or older (those most at risk and in whom BSE is found). However, currently there is no sensitive and reliable live animal test for BSE and the only definitive test can be made on the brain and other tissues after slaughter.

Prognosis of Mad Cow Disease and Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease

Human prion diseases are devastating and incurable but extremely rare. Fears that an epidemic of the animal disease (BSE) would lead to an epidemic of the human form (vCJD) have not occurred, even in the U.K., where entire herds of diseased cattle were destroyed and over 184,000 animals were known to develop the disease.

For More Information Mad Cow and Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Diseases

California Department of Food and Agriculture, Statement From CDFA Secretary Karen Ross on USDA Announcement of Detection of BSE

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or Mad Cow Disease)

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Prion Diseases

U.S. Food and Drug Administration, All About BSE

World Health Organization, Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease

Medically reviewed by Robert Cox, MD; American Board of Internal Medicine with subspecialty in Infectious Disease


California Dept. of Food and Agriculture. "Statement From CFDA Secretary Karen Ross on USDA Announcement of Detection of BSE." Apr. 24, 2012.

Switzerland. World Health Organization. "Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease." Feb. 2012. <

United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or Mad Cow Disease)." Apr. 27, 2012.

United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Prion Diseases." Dec. 5, 2011. <>.

United States Department of Agriculture. Food Safety and Inspection Service. "Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy - "Mad Cow Disease." Mar. 2005.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "All About BSE." Feb. 23, 2011.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 11/17/2016

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