While concern over the first documented case of Mad Cow Disease in the United States gripped the headlines over winter break, students and faculty at the University appear indifferent to the scare occurring in Washington State, some 2000 miles away.
The outbreak will most likely be limited, according to James Mastrianni, an associate professor of Neurology at the University. Mastrianni's laboratory is researching diseases associated with prionsthe degenerate proteins that can induce cell death in brain tissuethat include bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or Mad Cow Disease.
The announcement on December 23 that a Holstein cow infected with mad-cow disease had been discovered in a farm in Washington led the U.S. Department of Agriculture to slaughter and bury 449 calves from the infected cow's herd. The USDA has also quarantined three other Washington herds that contain some of the 80 cattle that came from Canada with the infected cow some two years ago. This is the first case of the disease found in the United States since it was first reported in England during the 1980s.
While the federal government works to defeat the Mad Cow threat, University eateries continue to grill burgers and slice meatloaf. Aramark Dining Services, which handles food services at the University, has seen no dramatic change in the demand for beef, though officials said they will respond to any changes incurred by Mad Cow Disease.
"Right now, it's not even affecting us," said Wes Wallace, assistant director of retail operations for Aramark and manager of Bartlett Dining Hall. "We haven't seen any change in what people been eating here. I've gotten contacts on the problem [of Mad Cow Disease] and we're continually updated on how this affects dining."
Mastrianni criticized the way the federal government and the USDA is handling the slaughter of the cattle by simply killing the herd and burying it in a landfill without testing.
"The government should be doing more testing of cows as they come to slaughter," Mastrianni said. "Especially so called "downer" cows that have difficulty walking (one of the signs of mad cow disease). Recent changes have been made by the FDA and USDA to better ensure safety, but more monitoring for disease needs to be done."
Mastrianni also said that it is difficult to determine the risk of Mad Cow Disease in the Chicago area without knowing if any of the meat came from Canadian cattle.
Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, and other Democrats announced support for testing all cattle at slaughter, though Daschle acknowledged it might not be feasible until the USDA adopts tests of Mad Cow Disease that can be completed within several days. USDA officials have said they are considering more widespread testing.
Since the news of the outbreak in Washington, prices for U.S. beef have fallen and countries such as Chile, Mexico, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have halted the import of U.S. beef. Stocks for restaurants such as McDonald's and Wendy's have fallen since the end of last year.
Mad Cow is a new prion disease that gives infected humans variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which eventually destroys the nervous system. The disease is transmitted to humans by eating neural tissue from the cow, which may be found in ground-meat products like hamburger and sausage.
"Mad Cow disease probably first originated from cows being fed the remains of sheep with a prion disease called scrapie." Mastrianni said. "Once the cows became infected with sheep prions, the disease was spread rapidly throughout the cattle by feeding cows the remains of dead cows in the form of meat and bone meal (MBM), which was thought to help "beef up" the cattle. Unfortunately, this spread the disease like wildfire, since prions transmit better within species (cow to cow) than across species (sheep to cow)."
Interestingly, the demand for vegetarian foods at Bartlett since the beginning of the quarter has risen dramatically. A separate station at Bartlett, a vegetarian grill that serves Boca Burgers, has been packed since its opening this week.
"You come in here at noon, 12:30, and there's a line at that grill all the way to the door," Wallace said, commenting on the popularity of the vegetarian grill.
Some students, though, don't think about Mad Cow Disease, as most of the quarantine and beef recall has occurred in the West.
"I don't even think about it when I'm eating," said Amanda Slagel, a first-year in the College and a Woodward House resident who eats at Bartlett. "I don't think it will affect beef here at all. I grew up on a cattle farm in central Illinois where we fed only corn and pellets to our cattle."