Six weeks ago, the Japanese lifted a two-year ban against importing U.S. beef. Now they've initiated the ban once more. Why? Fear of Mad Cow Disease.
Mad Cow Disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is a deadly brain disease in animals that's difficult to diagnose. It's spread through small proteins called prions.
These prions can cause a similar disease in humans called Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease (CJD). CJD has symptoms that are similar to Alzheimer's disease. Since people with Alzheimer's are not usually autopsied, we don't really know how many deaths from CJD have occurred. So we can't be certain if our beef is safe.
Cooking beef doesn't destroy the prions that carry this disease, so it's important to keep our food supply free of BSE. BSE is spread through contaminated spinal cords, brains, and bone marrow. That's why Asian countries only import boneless beef. When U.S. beef was found to contain some cattle backbones, the Japanese refused present and future shipments.
Does this mean our beef is dangerous? Not necessarily. There's no evidence that these backbones were contaminated. It's just one part of the cow that could theoretically carry disease.
So far, the FDA says that BSE has been found only in one U.S. beef cow. That's what started the whole Asian ban in the first place. There's no evidence that any other cows in our country have ever had BSE. My sources say otherwise, although I've never seen any proof.
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Bottom line: If there's any BSE in our beef, it's probably rare. But you can't be too careful about protecting yourself against a fatal degenerative disease. Here are some suggestions if you want to be as careful as the Japanese:
Don't buy ground beef or ground beef products. This is where spinal cord and brain material can get into the meat. You might want to switch to ground turkey instead. There's no risk of getting CJD from it. Plus, it's lower in fat than beef.
If you do eat beef, buy the healthiest beef you can find – grass fed. BSE contamination occurs when the feed given to beef cattle contains diseased animal protein.
Don't eat gelatin or products made with gelatin. It's made from bones, and there's no way to know for certain that potentially contaminated materials were removed before gelatin was processed.
Once more: Beef and beef byproducts, such as gelatin, are probably safe. However, it's easier to protect yourself now than to treat yourself later. If the risk of contamination is enough to concern much of Asia, you may want to pay closer attention to what you're eating.
Your voice of reason in Women's Health,
Dr. Janet Zand
Quaid, L., "Japan renews ban on U.S. beef," AOL, January 20, 2006.