It killed a man in Japan, got its proverbial goat in France and now has health and agricultural officials worldwide scrambling for answers. The human case of the brain-wasting disease and the discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) under natural conditions in animals other than cows are both firsts, and health and agricultural officials in both Europe and Japan are continually seeking to reassure the public. Meanwhile, BSE has sent shockwaves through commerce in Canada and the United States. Canada is already reeling from three confirmed cases of mad cow, two of which were discovered in a 9-day period in mid-January. Compounding the dilemma are higher dairy costs in Canada to offset the BSE fallout and rising production cost and a Montana-based cattlemen’s association effort to stop the USDA from allowing livestock and beef imports from Canada into the United States. That ban forced a few U.S. meatpackers to downsize, but at least one plant indicated that it will end the temporary suspension. At press time, USDA announced that two U.S. government reports assessing mad cow disease in Canada are expected to be completed by the end of March. The agency is also delaying plans to resume imports of some Canadian beef until a review of recent cases of mad cow disease is completed. “We expect a final report on feed ban issues in mid-February and the epidemiological report by the end of March,” newly appointed Agricultural Secretary Mike Johanns told Reuters. “These reports will be critical as we consider whether any adjustments to current policies are warranted.” However, it was not clear in Johanns’ written testimony whether the reports would alter the March 7 target date in the USDA’s plan to reopen the border to more shipments of Canadian cattle and beef. In a statement, the United Nations says Canada’s two recent cases of mad cow disease are isolated incidents and no cause for panic. In fact, better testing procedures brought the cases to light, one of the agency’s animal production experts, Andrew Speedy says. “The three cases in Canada and the one case in the U.S. from an imported animal are isolated incidents,” Speedy adds. Dr. Susan Brewer, a professor of food sciences at the University of Illinois, agrees, saying the logic in cases of even remote epidemic threat is to use as many tests as possible, especially since livestock is often shuffled around even after knowledge of problems. “Based on the amount of testing we have had over the last 15 years, the risk is very, very, very low,” Dr. Brewer says. “It is politically charged.but now the agenda is a matter of testing and trace back: Where the animal came from, what herds it made contact with and where its trim went.”
Explore this issueFebruary/March 2005
Japan’s vCJD case
In the last 10 years, the disease is believed to have caused 148 human deaths in the United Kingdom, except for one Japanese victim who was believed to have contracted the disease while visiting Britain. Health Ministry officials in Japan say the man who died likely contracted the disease while living in Britain for a month in 1989, which was right around the time mad cow first surfaced. “We believe it is highly likely that he contracted the disease during his visit to Britain,” Masahito Yamada, a Health Ministry panel expert told reporters at a Feb. 4 press conference. “We cannot rule out the possibility that he ate the infect parts at that time.” The man was not identified by ministry officials for privacy reasons, but officials did say he began to show signs of the disease in late 2001, when he was in his 40s. The man later became bedridden, unable to move or talk, and died in December. The Health Ministry also indicated that authorities will also investigate the possibility that the man may have been infected in Japan. The Japan Times reported that although he first developed symptoms of the disease in December 2001, initial tests showed brain wave patterns similar to nonvariant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which is not induced by mad cow disease. According to guidelines issued by the World Health Organization in 2001, the absence of brain wave patterns is one critical criterion when diagnosing a patient with the mad cow variant (vCJD). The health ministry’s surveillance committee did not list the man as a vCJD patient in September. It was only after samples of brain tissue collected after the man’s death in December that they found he was infected with vCJD.