BSE is caused by misshapen protein particles called prions, which can survive cooking and sterilization techniques. Consuming beef from a cow that was infected with BSE will cause Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans, a progressive brain-wasting illness that is incurable and invariably fatal.
A severe outbreak of BSE struck the United Kingdom in the mid-1990s, leading to the infection and death of more than 150 people. More than 4.4 million cattle were ultimately destroyed in an effort to eradicate the disease.
Confirmed reports of BSE in U.S. herds have been extremely rare. The first known U.S. case was reported in late 2003, in a cow that was born in Canada. A fully domestic case was reported in Texas in 2005, and a third case was reported in 2006. During this period, the U.S. Department of Agriculture developed an enhanced testing program to assess the prevalence of the disease, and placed several new restrictions on the beef industry, such as prohibiting the slaughter of “downer” cattle and prohibiting the use of animal byproducts in feed given to cows.
Despite heavy coverage by the consumer media, concern was always relatively muted among shoppers, according to retailers that SN spoke with for various stories in 2001 through 2006.
The advent of social media in the years since could potentially cause a different public reaction. This case could also cause ripples in import and export markets. Several countries placed lengthy, multi-year bans on imports of beef from the U.S. and Canada in 2003 and 2004.