Mad Cow Disease Facts

Background: Animal rights groups and organic-only food activists seized on a handful of cases of mad cow disease in the U.S. to push their anti-meat, anti-farmer agendas.

  • Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest has told The Washington Post that “taco filling, pizza toppings, hot dogs, [and] processed meats … can expose consumers to mad cow disease.” This is false, at least in the United States, where safeguards exist to keep high-risk materials out of the meat supply.
  • The deceptively named, animal-rights linked “Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine” sent out a press release following the 2001 mad-cow panic, attacking meat and offering a “vegetarian starter kit.”
  • Michael Greger, a vegetarian activist doctor who works for the Humane Society of the United States, edited the mad-cow scare web page of the Organic Consumers Association.
  • John Stauber, board member of the Organic Consumers Association, told CNN after the discovery of just one sick cow that it was just “the tip of an invisible iceberg” and that “mad cow disease is spread throughout North America.” Stauber’s “epidemic” never came to pass.

But isn’t mad cow disease still dangerous? This cattle ailment has been around since long before the era of modern agriculture. The risk of contracting the disease, even if you eat meat from an infected animal, is incredibly small.

  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk of contracting the disease from eating beef and beef products, even when infected cows are in the food supply, “appears to be extremely small, perhaps about one case per 10 billion servings.”
  • There’s no evidence to suggest that large-scale agriculture is at the root of the mad cow news. The proteins (called “prions”) that cause mad cow disease can show up spontaneously—regardless of the size of the farm.
  • David Ropeik of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis says that the risk to meat-eating consumers is “as close to zero as you can get.” Dr. Ken Petersen of the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service adds: “Clinical studies tell us there’s virtually zero risk.”
  • There is no evidence that milk, cheese, or other dairy products can transmit mad cow disease.

The Bottom Line: The experts agree: The risk is near zero and beef is safe to eat. Mad cow disease was hyped by activists who fed horror stories to over-eager reporters.

  • The overall risk of mad-cow exposure is extraordinarily low. Consumers should be more worried about an automobile accident on the way home from the grocery store. Or lightning strikes, or dog bites, or even being scalded to death by hot tap water.
  • The CDC fact sheet on Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (human “mad cow”) reports that there have been 3 (not 300, not 3000) cases in the United States, ever.
  • The FDA takes proactive steps to reduce the very small risks of mad cow disease transmission and ensure the safety of the American food supply, including regulating the contents of livestock feed to eliminate components tied to the outbreak in the United Kingdom.