BSE/Mad Cow Disease

Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), also referred to as Mad Cow Disease, is a chronic, degenerative disease affecting the central nervous system of cattle that is always fatal. It was first diagnosed in 1986 in Great Britain and has been found in countries throughout Europe as well as our trading partners Japan and Canada.

Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) is from a class of diseases known as TSE's (Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies). The cause of Mad Cow Disease and other TSE's is controversial. There is strong evidence that they are not caused by typical infectious agents such as bacteria or viruses, but rather by something called a prion. A variety of other species get these diseases, including mink, sheep and goats which can get scrapie, deer and elk which can Chronic Wasting Disease, and humans that can get Creutzfeld-Jakob disease. It is believed that humans in Great Britain got a variant version of Creutzfeld-Jakob disease (nvCJD) possibly related to the consumption of infected tissues. The tissues infected with BSE are brain, spinal cord, and the distal ileum. These tissues are prohibited in meats for human consumption.

The following lists some precautions previously taken to protect the United States meat supply:

  • There are no risky tissues in the US meat supply. The BSE agent is not found in cuts of meat like steaks and roasts. It is found in central nervous system tissues such as brain and spinal cord. This is the reason for the efforts by USDA and FDA to eliminate the presence of brain and spinal cord in meats for human consumption.
  • The discovery of the BSE-infected animal in Washington state led to a meat recall as a precautionary measure.
  • An aggressive surveillance program conducted by the USDA at slaughterhouses and on farms to detect the disease. The present surveillance system is designed to find 1 case in one million with a 95% confidence rate of finding the disease. 12,500 cattle would need to be tested to meet this 1 case in one million standard. Approximately 20,000 cattle were tested each year in 2002 and 2003. There are plans to test 38,000 animals in 2004.
  • All US cattle are inspected by a USDA Inspector or veterinarian before slaughter. Animals with signs of neurological disorder are tested for BSE.
  • Imports of cattle meat and bovine products from countries with BSE was banned beginning in 1989.
  • It appears that the only way BSE spreads is through contaminated feed. The US Food & Drug Administration in 1997 instituted a ban on feeding ruminant-derived meat and bone meal supplements to cattle. This should effectively eliminate infections from contaminated feed.

Consumers with food safety questions can phone the toll-free USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854). The hotline is available in English and Spanish and can be reached from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Eastern Time), Monday through Friday. Recorded food safety messages are available 24 hours a day. Please follow the links on the right for more information.


  1. Rutgers
  2. Executive Dean of Agriculture and Natural Resources
  3. School of Environmental and Biological Sciences