The risk of contracting the human form of mad cow disease is minute, but Americans face other food-borne risks from bacteria such as salmonella, E. coli and listeria.
More people die each year in the United States from these bacterial infections than have died from variant Creuzfeldt-Jakob disease — thought to be caused by mad cow disease — thus far around the world.
Dr. Jeff Tyler, a professor in MU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, thinks a lack of understanding of the actual risk of contracting the human form of mad cow disease has lead to hysteria about the disease.
According to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, there are more than 100,000 reported cases of salmonella, E. coli and listeriosis combined every year, and more than 1,000 people die each year from one of these bacterial infections.
Only 153 people around the world have died from the human form of mad cow disease.
Pregnant women, the elderly, infants and those with impaired immune systems are more likely to suffer a serious form of these bacterial infections. All three of these infections are caused by eating contaminated food and can be prevented by thoroughly cooking food and washing hands.
In 2003, the Columbia/Boone County Health Department had no reported cases of listeriosis, 14 reported cases of salmonella and five reported cases of E. coli, none of which resulted in death.
Salmonellosis is the infection caused by the bacterium salmonella, and it causes diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps. In severe cases, the
infection may spread from the intestines to the bloodstream and then to other parts of the body and can cause death unless the person is treated promptly with antibiotics.
A small number of those infected with salmonella will go on to develop Reiter’s syndrome, which is characterized by pain in the joints, irritation of the eyes and painful urination. Reiter’s syndrome can lead to chronic arthritis.
Escherichia coli 0157:H7 is one of hundreds of strains of E. coli and poses the greatest threat to humans and animals. The infection causes bloody diarrhea and sometimes kidney failure.
Listeriosis causes fever, muscle aches and sometimes gastrointestinal symptoms. If the infection spreads to the nervous system, symptoms such as headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance or convulsions may occur.
Eric Berg, a professor at MU’s College of Agriculture, says these bacterial infections are “totally preventable as long as you cook the food product to the appropriate temperature.”
Berg says all meat at MU’s Food Science Department is tested for bacteria and must have negative results before it is sold. Berg says the department has had no problems thus far.