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Mad Cow Laws: Is That Beef Safe?

By Edward Tan, JD on April 27, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

With mad cow disease currently giving pause to every American beef eater, laws on how tainted animals are handled are in the public eye. Retailers in Korea have even halted the sale of U.S. beef.

Despite reports that the infected dairy cow found in California was a result of random mutation, people are still worried about beef safety. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), aka mad cow disease, is a fatal disorder that can wreck your brain and spine.

But are the current government regulations in place enough to keep people safe from bad meat?

They might be.

In addition to springing up via genetic mutation, BSE can also be contracted by animals through feeding. Of the ways mad cow disease is spread, livestock feed poses the greatest threat. This is because whole herds can be infected simultaneously.

Years ago, scrap meat from cattle, pigs, and other animals were added to livestock food. This was identified as a source for Britain's BSE outbreak in 1997. After that, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the adding of scraps to feed.

After America's first mad cow case in 2003, Congress passed a law banning the sale of "downer cows."

A downer animal is one that can't stand on its own due to illness. Identifying these animals is important because a symptom of BSE is loss of muscle control.

In 2009, California went further by requiring these animals to be separated from the herd and destroyed. However, the state's law was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court after the National Meat Association and the American Meat Institute sued.

Federal law preempts state law under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution. In California's case, the Court held the state couldn't pass laws tougher than current federal regulations.

And that's where the "might" fits in. While federal laws prevent downer cattle from being sold, that's about the only sure guarantee it gives consumers. As far as how, where, and if these animals will be destroyed is another story. The laws designed to protect against mad cow disease in this area remain murky.

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