Newswise — For the first time in history the United States is faced with a confirmed case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease within its borders, but according to Northeastern University professor of chemistry Ira Krull there are many more undocumented cases just waiting to be discovered.
"The American public should be concerned. At this moment, there is contaminated beef sitting in grocery stores and personal freezers across the country," said Krull.
Krull, with assistant chemistry professor Norman Chiu are working to develop an antimortem clinical test, or assay, to detect chronic wasting disease, a variant of mad cow disease that affects deer and elk. Current tests for such diseases - known collectively as tissue spongiform encephalopathies, for the sponge-like formations they cause in the brain " are effective only on slaughtered animals because brain tissue is needed to confirm a diagnosis.
Krull, a strong advocate for mad cow disease testing of all slaughtered cows intended for market, suggests the U.S. follow the lead of countries such as England and Japan. England, in response to their mad cow disease epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s, instates mandatory testing of all slaughtered cows intended for market, keep detailed records of all cows within their borders, and banned the use of all ruminant feed. Currently the U.S. and Canada lag on all accounts, says Krull.
"It's disturbing that, even with a confirmed case of mad cow disease, slaughtered cows are not tested before they are sent to market," said Krull. The United States Department of Agriculture tests approximately .03 percent of U.S. slaughtered cattle for mad cow disease in their random spot tests.
Testing of all cattle as part of the USDA's regular procedure, according to Krull, the cost of adding such testing is minimal, between $20 to $25 per cow, which translates into about six cents per pound of beef. Krull says the issue of testing for mad cow disease is highly political. The more cattle tested, the more likely it is that some will be found with mad cow disease. "They don't want to find it," says Krull. "The USDA really should be funding this like crazy, but their not."
The practice of providing ruminant feed to farm animals has been acknowledged to be extremely dangerous, says Krull. The high concentration of nerve and brain tissue in ruminant feed is thought to greatly increase the risk of transmission of mad cow disease. In the 1990s the U.S. along with most other beef-producing nations, introduced a ban on ruminant feed, but Krull points out the problem of regulation remains. "Currently there is no way to prevent small farmers from making and using ruminant feed," said Krull.
Nearly 140 people worldwide have contracted the untreatable and fatal Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a variant of mad cow disease, after eating contaminated beef. And because the disease has a very long incubation period, more are diagnosed each year.
"I don't believe we will see change until the beef industry is forced to be accountable for selling contaminated products to consumers," said Krull.
Northeastern University located in the heart of Boston, Massachusetts, is a world leader in cooperative education and recognized for its expert faculty and first-rate academic research facilities. Through co-op, Northeastern undergraduates alternate semesters of full-time study with semesters of paid work in fields relevant to their professional interests and major, giving them nearly two years of professional experience upon graduation. The majority of Northeastern graduates receive a job offer from a co-op employer. Cited for excellence two years running by U.S. News & World Report, Northeastern was named top college in the northeast by the Princeton Review 2003/04. In addition, Northeastern's career services was awarded top honors by Kaplan Newsweek's "Unofficial Insider's Guide to the 230 Most Interesting Colleges and Universities," 2003 edition. For more information, please visit http://www.northeastern.edu.