Ellen Haas: Mad Cow -- To Eat Beef or Not Eat Beef?

Mad cow disease has made it to our shores -- what do we do now?

By Ellen Hass
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Live Events Transcript
Event Date: Jan. 7, 2004

Mad cow disease has been confirmed in the U.S., but what is the real effect on your day-to-day diet? Are there options for buying "safer" meat? Should we even be worried at all? We learned the answers when we welcomed Ellen Haas, CEO of foodfit.com and former USDA official, to WebMD Live.

The opinions expressed herein are the guest's alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Welcome, Ellen. Mad cow disease has finally come to the U.S. -- by way of Canada, it seems. But I don't see McDonald's closing down or people buying out tofu supplies in the grocery. Is it really business as usual for American meat eaters?

Haas: I think the situation for meat eating has shifted a bit. I think that consumers are cautiously concerned, but they haven't thrown their love of steak or hamburger out the window. As consumers received more information and the government, meaning the Department of Agriculture, began to respond with new regulations, consumers got more comfortable with buying beef, however still had questions about what all this means, as they should.

Member question: Can you tell me what is exactly the infectious agent with this disease? It infects the nervous system through ingesting infected tissue, but is it a bacteria, virus, etc., or what?

Haas: Mad cow disease is the common name for a progressive neurological disorder of cattle, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy. It's caused by abnormal proteins called prions that bore sponge-like holes in the brain and eventually destroyed it. Prions have become, you might say, the consumer alert of the season, All of a sudden people are hearing this word the first time and it's quickly becoming a household word.

The cases in England are very, very troubling in that the road that people have to travel when they get sick is very disconcerting; it couldn't be much worse. It's a deterioration of your mind and body. It's a very serious disease, and though it's very rare it causes great concern.

The cattle contract the disease by eating the recycled remains of other BSE infected animals. Once it gets into the system it can appear again, and that is another reason for concern and for necessary government action.

In 1997 the United States Department of Agriculture did ban the use of ground up ruminants (cattle, goats, sheep, and deer) in cattle feed. The reason for this is when an animal does get BSE the prions are found in the brain, spinal cord, eyes, lymph nodes, marrow, and spleen, so it's of utmost importance that these ruminants not be recycled, so to speak, in the feed of other cattle, because that is how the disease is passed along. Eventually, as it's passed from cattle to cattle it could be passed to humans unless the necessary protections in food are in place.

Member question: Are cows the only meat-producing animal that carry this? Is there any chance of it 'jumping' to pigs or chickens?

Haas: If they are fed the animal feed that is contaminated, then they can also get sick. The problem lies in the contaminated animal feed and the kind of protections we have about ensuring that the animal feed is wholesome, and making sure that the cattle that are sick are not slaughtered for human use.

Member question: I was really surprised to learn than "downer" cows were used for human consumption. Why would they allow sick appearing animals into the food chain?

Haas: That's a very good question. It's probably in that case that economic interests outweighed health interests, and that when the cattle industry is hurting and there are those who can sell a product, albeit a damaged one, then the marketplace gets a price for it. If someone can sell something in an open marketplace, then they will.

It's very important, therefore, that downer cattle be prohibited from being sold. The action taken by USDA on December 30 prohibiting cattle that are downers from being slaughtered for human consumption was something long past due. We should have had that prohibition in place for a long time in our food safety system.

Member question: I read that although the brain and spinal column are removed, the spinal ganglia are not. Then the bones are pressed to extract every last bit of marrow, meat, etc. What's the point of saying the meat supply is safe if these kinds of extraction methods are used?

Haas: For more than a decade we've had new processing techniques called advanced meat recovery that are so advanced in their ability to capture all the meat on a carcass and ground it up they also have included the nervous system tissue connected to the spinal cord, which is called dorsal root ganglia. The new regulations of USDA just issued do prohibit it; however, AMR has been a system that has really been under-regulated, and so consumers need to be aware there is little enforcement of this process.

I think the Department of Agriculture should take a closer look at how they will enforce the prohibition. What kind of testing will be done is important. It's very important that consumers are protected. In the meantime there are things consumers can do to make healthy choices. We on footfit.com provide on our home page the kinds of tips you need to have a safe dinner tonight.

Member question: I live in Portland where the "mad cow" was processed. Our local groceries recalled certain types of beef because of this. Unfortunately one of the types was a very lean ground beef purchased from the butcher at my local market during a particular period of time. I wish I could return it, but I cooked it and we ate it. I know cooking doesn't affect the prions. How concerned should we be that we ate what could be tainted meat?

Haas: I think there is no need for alarm, that the chances of BSE to be found in that meat is very small, because the number of cattle was small, the recall was preventative, and it's not happening again.

I understand your concern for you and your family, but the risk is insignificant, according to USDA. With the changes in regulations and the move to a stricter system there should not be a continuation of this problem in our country.

Member question: Should I let my child eat school lunch beef and occasionally McDonald's hamburgers? Should I pursue asking for organic beef in public school lunch?

Haas: The school lunch program is like a consumer. The same risks are there. There are not additional inspections being done in the school lunch program. We do not have a situation where the consumer should be that alarmed that they should stop their children from having any beef, any hamburgers.

However, consumers should be alert, and if organics are available in your marketplace it is a smart option to take advantage of. The school lunch program does not have much organic food in it at all, whether it is fruits or vegetables or beef. If you, the consumer, feel this is important for the future health of your family it is wise to get involved in the school lunch program in your community and to encourage more availability of organic produce and beef, not just because of a fear of BSE, but for the healthfulness and the taste of the product.

Member question: Is kosher beef safer than regular beef? I know they are careful about how the animal is slaughtered and only use certain parts of the animal.

Haas: Yes, kosher beef is a good choice. There are more strict prohibitions involved. Kosher processors have never used downer cows. Kosher beef might be safer because the animals are killed by having their throats slit rather than by being shot or struck in the head, which can scatter brain tissue. I think it is fair to say their standards of production are very rigorous.

"There is a growing industry of organic producers of beef, and that beef is safest. It's cattle that have been raised organically, and by law cannot be fed animal byproducts."

Member question: Is there a supply chain of meat that doesn't go through the same mass production that creates this mad cow danger? Do "organic" beef producers exist who slaughter their own cows, that we can purchase beef from?

Haas: Definitely there is a growing industry of organic producers of beef, and that beef is safest. It's cattle that have been raised organically, and by law cannot be fed animal byproducts, which are believed to be the cause of mad cow disease. Organic beef is available, but it's a very small percentage of the beef that's available in today's supermarkets.

We at FoodFit have provided guides on how to buy organic, and you can check at foodfit.com for those kinds of tips or ask your supermarket in the meat counter if they have any organic meat available.

Member question: Since the disease progresses slowly, cows could have the disease but show no symptoms -- therefore go into the food supply. Wouldn't this be a possibility because they are not downer cows?

Haas: Downer cows are only one example of the problem. To detect the prevalence of BSE easiest is to do adequate testing of the animals. That's why it's so necessary for the USDA to embark on an aggressive program of testing. Also, the whole processing chain needs more frequent testing, as well.

At one time we had a continuous testing of our system. We have gone in the last 20 years to more industry controls and a reduction of continuous inspection. I think this problem today reveals a need for reviewing our food safety protection.

Member question: Does cooking beef fully not kill the germs that are carried with the mad cow disease?

Haas: Unfortunately, cooking the beef completely does not help in this case as it does in other food borne illnesses. The contamination is there and cannot be cooked away. That's why one case has created so much action and concern.

Member question: Aside from nationalism, why is it so important that the infected cow in Washington came from Canada?

Haas: There are two issues -- economics and health -- that are very intertwined in this whole mad cow episode of 2003. The health issues involve finding the root of all this; where is coming from, where the originator cattle was, so we can track it and prevent disease in humans.

The other issue is the economic trade issue, and knowing which country is most responsible. This is an enormous issue because the economic losses to cattlemen have been in the hundreds of millions of dollars because of this. Thirty countries have banned U.S. beef because of the understanding that this was a U.S. food safety problem, but in this case it has been found, just yesterday, that it was a problem that did originate from Canada. We have a $3 billion a year beef export business and if you think about 30 countries banning our beef, you could see what an economic crisis this is for American and Canadian cattle producers.

Member: Right now I don't think it is really an issue of who is more responsible but rather what changes are to be made by all cattle-producing countries

Member question: Isn't our testing system woefully inadequate? I heard that the French inspect as much meat in a month as the USDA inspects in a year.

Haas: There has been a great deal of consumer criticism about the state of our meat and poultry inspection system, and the growing incidence of food borne illness in this country. For more than 20 years there have been calls for increased testing and necessary prohibitions like the one on advanced meat recovery, but they've been slow in coming. For the US, which is a trade leader, to continue to have the safest food supply we've got to keep up with changes in technology.

Those new changes, such as advanced meat recovery, bring new problems for the consumer. If you can recover hundreds of millions more pounds of beef the industry will do it, but it also increases risk, so the government must adapt the inspection system to meet the technological advances. There's nothing wrong with technology but we've got to keep up with regulations to protect public health, because public health has got to be the driver of the system, not the economics.


Foods That Aren't as Healthy as You Think See Slideshow

Because today there is no single food safety agency in the U.S., but instead the consumer has conflicting agency protections from the FDA, the USDA, Dept of Commerce, Environmental Protection Agency, and others, we are facing overlapping and inadequate food safety systems. BSE is a wakeup call for making those changes in the federal structure of food safety policy. We have had a series of wakeup calls, whether it's because of salmonella or E Coli. or BSE that are all pointing to the need for safer food. That's why on foodfit.com we have a safe food zone that keeps up with the latest reports and information and tips on how to make safe food choices.

Moderator: We are almost out of time. Do you have any final words for us, Ellen?

Haas: The BSE issue we are facing is definitely a wake-up call for government regulators. It also is an opportunity for consumers to learn more about making healthy food choices and safer food choices. You can visit foodfit.com for guidance on how to do that. It's an opportunity to join together to see that our food system becomes the safest in the world.

This spring we will have a book coming out called Fit Food: A Weight Loss Cookbook, and it will provide information on how to be healthy, lose weight, and enjoy it all the time.

Moderator: Thanks to Ellen Haas for answering our questions. And please be sure to visit the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic message boards, where you can post questions and comments for fellow members and health professionals.

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