BSE/Mad Cow Disease

Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), also known as Mad Cow Disease, is a neurodegenerative condition which typically affects cattle and ultimately leads to death. BSE affects the brain and spinal cord, causing these parts of the nervous system to deteriorate into a spongy mass. Once a cow has contracted the disease, the infection incubates inside the body for 30 months to eight years. BSE is currently thought to be caused by an infection of an agent known as a prion. A benign prion protein in the cow’s body is altered into a harmful pathogen which gets into a cow’s nervous system and causes damage which leads to death.


Research into the origin of BSE is still being conducted but there are a few popular theories. One of the leading theories is that BSE came from sheep who can suffer from a disease known as Scrapie which is also a prion disease. It is generally accepted that cattle first contracted BSE in the 1970s after eating food which was prion-infected. Rather than being fed strictly grains, vegetables, or plants, cattle in the United Kingdom were fed meat and bone infused feed which led to the infection of Mad Cow Disease.

Mad Cow Disease and Humans

While humans cannot get Mad Cow Disease, they can contract an equally destructive disease from consuming meat infected with BSE known as Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD). There are other strains of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. However, the variant form which was first identified in 1996 is linked to Mad Cow Disease. While vCJD can only be contracted from eating the brain or spinal cord tissue from an infected cow, it is possible for these parts to contaminate other meats which are ground together and sold for human consumption.

Variant CJD is a human prion disease. The first symptoms of this disease include dementia, memory loss, personality change, and other unusual behaviors. The disease will last for a different amount of time for different people, however unfortunately death is the ultimate result. Typically death occurs within about six months of infection. As of now, research is still being conducted to discover a treatment. The disease is rare, only infecting about one person out of one million each year.

Signs and symptoms of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease

First symptoms of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease

Treatment results for patients in the United Kingdom with Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease

Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease and other Prion Diseases

Symptoms and diagnostic information on Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease


The first cases of BSE being contracted by cows are predicated to have occurred in the 1970s in the United Kingdom. After incubation, the BSE became apparent when cows began dying after exhibiting strange behavior. The number of infected cows grew through the early 1990s reaching upwards of over 14,500 cases in 1995 alone. Since then, the numbers have dropped, however BSE has been discovered in cattle in other parts of the world including Canada and the United States.

The History of Mad Cow Disease around the world

The first case of Mad Cow Disease in the United States

Mad Cow Disease timeline for the United States and Canada

Cattle Plagues Past and Present: The Mystery of Mad Cow Disease

Mad Cow Disease Timeline

An Estimate of the Prevalence of BSE in the United States


The statistics for studying BSE are varied. Data can be reported from the number of reported cases of infected cows around the country, the number of people who die from eating contaminated meat, or how the economy and market is affected when Mad Cow disease is in the media.

Consumer and market and responses to Mad-Cow disease

USDA’s Mad Cow disease surveillance program: A comparison of state cattle-testing rates

Mad Cow Disease Fact Sheet

Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) Fast Facts

Mad Cows Disease effects on markets in the 1990s

Reports and Publications

Information about Mad Cow disease was released and readily noticed by the public in the 1990s. Fears of Mad Cow disease were justifiable, considering that a person could be infected without even knowing for a period of time. Government, scientific, and non-profit organizations around the world began conducting studies, publishing their findings, and working to create laws and regulations for testing cow meat which was sold for human consumption.

An economic chronology of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy in North America from the United States Department of Agriculture

The World Health Organization’s infection control guidelines for transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies

The National Institute for Animal Agriculture’s report on Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy

CRS report for Congress Mad Cow disease and U.S. Beef Trade

Canadian Health Coalition food safety fact sheet #1 on Mad Cow disease

Government Resources

Mad Cow disease outbreaks are addressed by multiple governmental bodies including disease control, food and agriculture bodies, and more. The government is working independently and in partnership with scientific researchers to better understand Mad Cow disease, its causes, proven prevention measures, and treatment possibilities.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s BSE Control Measures

Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s vCJD prevention measures

U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s report on BSE in relation to animal and veterinary practices

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke’s Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease fact sheet

Mississippi State Department of Health’s About BSE and CJD

California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy

U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s response to the Canadian Rule for controlling BSE risk

Producer Management Information

Farmers and agriculture specialist are responsible for creating an environment that is safe and sanitary so that they can raise their cattle to be BSE disease free. The United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, and other countries have developed plans, passed regulations, and administer on-going testing to ensure that beef products are safe for the public.

National Milk Producers Federation’s top ten steps dairy producers can take against FMD and BSE

Managing invasive species risks, a case study of Mad Cow New Variant Creutzfeldy-Jakob Disease

Introduction to nutrient management for cattle in the United States Risk management in agriculture in Canada