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Disease not a concern

BILL SANDERSON and ANDY GELLER (New York Post) -- Is our meat safe from mad cow disease, or is the deadly ailment silently invading our food supply?

Scientists say it's probably OK to cut into that juicy steak, but warn there's much about mad cow we don't know.

In fact, you might have picked up the illness 10 or 15 years ago and don't know it.

"We don't say [a mad cow epidemic] never can happen. There are things we don't know about the disease," said Linda Detwiler, a U.S. Department of Agriculture expert on mad cow.

But Detwiler and Food and Drug Administration officials stress there have been no cases of mad cow or its human form -- new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease -- in the United States.

And in Britain, where there have been 94 cases since the disease emerged in 1996, it has struck only one in 2 million people.

Garden-variety Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease has been around for decades. It was discovered in Germany in the 1920s.

But your chances of getting that disease are also very low. It strikes only one in 1 million people, and in New York City, the odds are even lower.

In the past 10 years, it has hit 1 to 6 people a year, said Health Department spokeswoman Sandra Mullin.

On the negative side, there's no blood test for mad cow. There's no cure. And it takes a long time to incubate.

Rick McCarty, a spokesman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, used the title of a 1969 Michael Crichton novel about doctors battling a mysterious illness to describe mad cow's spookiness.

"It's really 'Andromeda Strain'-type stuff," he said. "It's weird."

Mad cow belongs to a school of disorders called transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, or TSE. Simply put, it turns the brain into sponge.

The leading theory is that the illnesses are caused by infectious proteins unknown 20 years ago.

Nobody's sure how the proteins, called prions, work. But they can incubate for years.

Spongy-brain diseases were noticed in sheep hundreds of years ago. They were called scrapie.

Scrapie probably jumped to cows in the early 1980s, when British cattle were fed infected sheep parts.

A British farmer first noticed mad cow in 1984, when one of his cows began losing weight, twitching, losing balance and acting crazy. The disease was called bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE.

In March 1996, British doctors reported the first 10 cases of the human form, which has symptoms similar to Alzheimer's, including depression and dementia.

Ninety-eight cases of the disease have been diagnosed, all but four of them in England -- and the four non-English victims are believed to have caught the disease by eating British meat.

To keep out mad cow, the USDA banned live cattle imports from England 12 years ago and the ban was later extended to most of Europe.

But mad cow has probably never been as much of a risk in the U.S. because cattle-feeding practices are different. For economic reasons, animal protein has never been a big component of American cattle feed. Instead, cattle are mostly fed soybean-based meal.

"We have an abundance of soybeans here. They don't have that in Europe," McCarty explained.

Some people who got mad cow in England ate animal brains -- the very stuff that incubates the deadly protein, McCarty said. Others may have picked it up from bone meal or brain parts mixed in with sausage or ground meat.

Steaks and beef cut from animal muscle don't contain the mad cow protein, and are OK to eat, the cattle industry maintains.

"Beef in the U.S. is safe," McCarty said.

(c) 2001 New York Post

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