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Savell: BSE poses little risk for beef consumers in the United States

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

The latest case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) from Canada has again raised concerns about the safety of the beef supply in the U.S. However, Jeff Savell of Texas A&M University noted that consumers aren’t at risk for catching the disease from eating beef. 

“Clearly, the risk of BSE was much greater starting in the 1980s in the Great Britain area,” Savell explained in a Meat Mythcrushers video. “All the programs that were put in place after BSE was discovered have eliminated it as a risk.”
Programs started in Europe and were adopted shortly after in the U.S. as a proactive strategy for avoiding the disease. 

“A triple-firewall program was put in place beginning in the 90s with the implementation of a feed ban that said ruminants could not receive bone meal,” he said, noting that the ban on feeding ruminant bone meal to ruminant animals was implemented in 1997. 

The feed ban was followed by increased surveillance efforts of suspect animals. 

“If an animal has a neurological problem, that doesn’t mean it definitely has BSE, but those animals would be more suspect,” Savell said. “There was a tremendous amount of surveillance where we looked for neurological problems and sent hundreds of thousands of samples to the lab to be carefully checked for the disease.”

The final layer of protection against BSE has been in the removal of specified high-risk materials, Savell noted.

“If the BSE agent were present, it would be contained in several high-risk materials – principally the brains, spinal cord and associated tissues of the animal,” he explained. “Humans can’t get BSE from eating beef. The BSE agent is only present in materials like the brain, spinal cord and similar tissues.”

Further, he noted that the disease is quite age-specific. 

“Those tissues are removed and aren’t eligible for consumption by humans,” Savell said. “There is no record of anyone who has come down with the human variant, Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease (CJD), who would have gotten it here.”

While there have been several people in the U.S. who have passed away as a result of CJD, Savell noted that those people had spent significant time in Great Britain or Europe and would have contracted the disease there. 

Atypical BSE also emerges as a topic of concern for Americans who have watched the news. 

“Atypical BSE looks like BSE but is different under the microscope,” Savell explained. “In the cases that were atypical, they would have had a different source. In these cases of atypical BSE, there is no meat or bone meal that contained the agent.”

“It is almost like those animals have a spontaneous reaction that causes BSE-like conditions,” he continued. “It isn’t the same as BSE.”

For those folks who like to consume beef, Savell said, “I tell my family and friends to eat beef and to enjoy beef.”

He further mentioned that there have only been four animals in the U.S. with a positive diagnosis out of hundreds of millions of cattle that have come to market.

“I have no fear of any great risk because of all the things that have been put in place,” Savell commented. “I fear nothing about the meat supply with regard to BSE.”

Meat Mythcrushers was developed in consultation with leading experts in meat and animal science. The American Meat Institute hosts the site, and members of the American Meat Science Association review the content. 

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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