Mad cow: Brazil confirms two atypical cases of the disease. Should I be concerned about eating meat? Ask your questions

BRASILIA — Mad cow disease became known worldwide in the 1980s, after an outbreak in the United Kingdom. The disease makes animals dangerous, hence its name. The subject returned to the news this Saturday, after the Ministry of Agriculture confirmed two cases in slaughterhouses in the country, in Minas Gerais and Mato Grosso.

But for the consumer, are there any risks when buying or consuming meat? Authorities say no.

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In the two cases registered in Brazil, it is an “atypical origin” disease, that is, it did not occur because of contamination, which could affect more than one bovine at a time, but because of a mutation in a single animal.

Even so, Brazil suspended beef exports to China, because the sanitary protocol it has with the Asian country provides for the temporary suspension of sales in these cases.

Importing countries from Brazil and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) have already been notified of atypical cases in Minas and Mato Grosso.

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In 20 years of monitoring the disease in Brazil, the traditional form of the disease has never been identified, which is when the animal is contaminated because of its food.

Understand below what mad cow disease is, how it affects exports and why there is no risk to the consumer.

1. What is mad cow disease?

The disease is fatal to animals and affects older adult cattle, causing nervous system degeneration. As a result, a cow that was initially calm and easy to handle, for example, becomes aggressive. Hence the name of the disease.

EC Vale do Paraiba (SP) 12/22/2020 Cattle breeding in the Vale do Paraiba.  Photo: Edilson Dantas / Agencia O Globo Photo: Edilson Dantas / Agência O Globo
EC Vale do Paraiba (SP) 12/22/2020 Cattle breeding in the Vale do Paraiba. Photo: Edilson Dantas / Agencia O Globo Photo: Edilson Dantas / Agência O Globo

Scientifically called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), the disease is generated by an infectious protein called a prion. Prion is already present in the brain of several mammals naturally, including humans. This protein, however, can cause the disease by multiplying intensely.

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When this happens, the prion kills the neurons and white holes in the brain are left in their place, hence the name of the disease “spongiform”, since the holes are shaped similar to a sponge.

2. How is the cow contaminated?

There are two main ways for an animal to acquire the disease. The first case is atypically, when the prion protein mutates, becoming infectious. The older the animal, the more likely this is to happen. That was how the cases registered in Brazil this week occurred.

The second way for an animal to get sick is through contamination. This occurs when consuming feeds made with contaminated animal protein, such as meat and bone meal from other species. In Brazil, the use of this type of ingredient in the manufacture of feed for cattle is prohibited. There is no evidence that one cow directly transmits the disease to another.

3. Can humans be infected?

As with animals, humans can develop the infective prion naturally or acquire it from eating infected meat. Human cases have as symptoms memory loss, vision loss, depression and insomnia. Approximately 90% of affected individuals evolve to death within a year, according to the federal government.

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But there is no risk of the meat being infected in Brazil, the cases discovered here were of the atypical type, without contamination for other animals. And the two cattle diagnosed with the disease, one in Minas the other in Mato Grosso, were slaughtered and incinerated. In Brazil, the use of feed of the type that can cause the typical mad cow, which causes contamination between animals, is prohibited.

4. Can I continue buying meat?

Yes. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, the registered cases are atypical and, therefore, there is no general contamination or an epidemic of the disease.

5. So why did Brazil suspend beef exports to China?

China is the main market for Brazilian beef, accounting for 65% of the revenues obtained by Brazil from exports of the product this year.

The sanitary protocol signed between the two countries provides that, when there are cases of mad cow, even if atypical, sales are temporarily suspended. The measure took effect on Saturday and will remain in effect until Chinese authorities complete the assessment of the information already passed on about the cases.

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Until August, Brazil had already exported US$ 3.54 billion in fresh, refrigerated or frozen beef to China.

6. What are the main symptoms in the animal?

Mad cow disease has a long course, in which the animal presents neurological symptoms such as nervousness, apprehension, fear, teeth grinding, hypersensitivity to sound, touch and light, and difficulty walking.

7. Is there treatment?

There is no treatment or vaccine for mad cow, so the best solution is to prevent the animal from developing the infectious protein, using only authorized feed. When affected by the disease, cattle can die between two weeks and six months after the onset of symptoms. When an animal is diagnosed with the disease, the producer must put it to slaughter and incinerate the body, in order to prevent it from becoming infected. become food for some species and spread disease. The producer also needs to notify the health surveillance.

8. How were the surgings in the world?

The biggest outbreak of mad cow on record occurred in the United Kingdom — at least 53 people died between 1992 and the year 2000, when the disease began to emerge in other countries in the region, causing panic in Europeans and fears of a global epidemic. Hundreds of animals were sacrificed, and Brazilian chicken exporters benefited from the situation.

In 2001, Canada registered cases and, in 2003, it was the United States’ turn to have an outbreak and sacrifice herds. In Brazil, Paraná registered a case in 2010 and, therefore, a number of countries — including Russia, Japan, China and South Africa — suspended the purchase of Brazilian meat.