The USDA this week recalled 4,000 pounds of beef processed at Fruitland American Meat in Jackson, Missouri, due to possible inclusion of “specific risk materials,” which are tissues associated with BSE in cattle and possible transmission of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD) to humans.
Most of the recalled meat was distributed to a Whole Foods distribution center in Connecticut that supplies its New England stores.
The USDA requires brain and spinal tissue be removed from meat products from cattle 30 months and older as a safeguard against vCJD.
The risk presented by the beef covered by this recall is exceedingly low, as there is no indication any cattle involved had BSE. Unfortunately though, news headlines linking the recall to BSE could mislead the public. CNN.com, for example, ran this headline: “4,000 pounds of rib-eyes, other beef recalled; mad cow disease a concern.” The article does go on to say that all the cattle involved were inspected by veterinarians and there was no indication of disease and no reports of illness as a result of consumption.
Variant CJD remains extremely rare worldwide. Since the disease was first identified in 1996, 229 cases have been reported. The largest concentration of cases occurred in the UK, with 177, and in France with 27. In the early 1990s, BSE became an epidemic in the UK, and reported cases reached a peak of nearly 1,000 per week in 1993. Scientists believe the emergence of BSE resulted from feeding cattle processed byproducts such as bone meal from sheep infected with scrapie , which is a related disease.
Once that link was established, European producers stopped feeding ruminant byproducts to cattle, and other nations soon adopted similar policies. In the United States, the FDA instituted a ruminant feed ban in June 1997 that became fully effective as of October 1997. In October 26, 2009, FDA implemented enhanced BSE-related feed ban with tighter controls. In late 2001, the Harvard Center for Risk Assessment study of various scenarios involving BSE in the U.S. concluded that the FDA ruminant feed rule provides a major defense against this disease.
Studies have shown that when producers stopped feeding ruminant byproducts to cattle, the incidence of BSE dropped off dramatically. And after the number of BSE-infected cattle entering the food chain shrank to near zero, the number of new human cases of vCJD dropped accordingly. During the early stages of the BSE outbreak in the UK in the early 1990s, it is likely that thousands, possibly tens of thousands of BSE-infected cattle entered the food chain before the disease and its link to vCJD became understood and the industry took action. That suggests there probably were millions of servings of beef from BSE cattle served to consumers, and yet there have only been 177 cases of vCJD in the UK and 229 worldwide. What all that tells us is that while there is a link between BSE and vCJD, the risk of contracting vCJD, even among those eating beef from BSE cattle, is extremely low.
Read more from the CDC.