News of California’s case of mad cow disease had plenty of people fretting, and for good reason. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) is scary stuff, and as Tom Philpott over at Mother Jones points out, it was a sheer stroke of luck that officials happened to catch that particular cow, considering the government tests less than .1 percent of the millions of cows processed each year.
Despite all we know about BSE, the American beef industry is still feeding cow protein to cows; and the USDA office confirmed the identified cow contracted the L-type of BSE, which “is thought to be far more virulent than what scientists call ‘classical’ BSE, the kind that wrought havoc in the U.K. in the 1990s,” writes Philpott.
While that news may have sent shivers down the spines of beef lovers across the nation, food-safety experts say eaters should put the hand-wringing into perspective.
“Statistically, the odds of mad cow creating a human health hazard are infinitesimally small,” Sarah Klein, food-safety attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest tells TakePart.
In fact, there are five pathogens that pose far more of a real danger to your health than mad cow disease, including E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria, campylobacter, and norovirus, says Klein.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 48 million Americans got sick from preventable foodborne illnesses last year, and 3,000 of those died. The number of Americans sickened or killed by mad cow disease? Zero.
“There are simply other things to worry about,” says Bill Marler, Seattle-based attorney who specializes in food-safety cases.
Instances of E. coli in hamburger are down, and spinach and lettuce, which had their moment in the limelight, are believed to be safer today than even just a few years ago. What concerns Marler are the pathogens showing up in our food supply where we least expect it.
“Listeria in cantaloupe,” he says. “No one thought of that. E. coli in cookie dough. Salmonella in tuna. Those are the oddities that we’ve got to be more concerned with because they’re the harbingers of a larger problem.”
So where exactly should you apply caution to the food you eat? Marler points to raw juices, raw milk and sprouts as the most concerning. And Klein adds raw oysters from the Gulf of Mexico to the list—not because of contaminant fears stemming from the BP oil spill—but because they can carry Vibrio vulnificus, which kills 15 to 30 people a year.
“Of those, raw milk is probably the riskiest,” Marler says.
Indeed, two recent outbreaks highlight how quickly things can go seriously wrong. A raw milk outbreak in Missouri had 12 ill and another outbreak in Oregon sickened nearly 20 people, most under the age of 19, with four hospitalized for acute kidney failure.
More troubling, scientists are increasingly starting to see connections between foodborne illnesses and lifelong consequences.
Long-term consequences aren’t limited to individuals who were hospitalized with foodborne illnesses, reports Maryn McKenna in Scientific American. “They have also been recorded in people who experienced what seemed to be minor bouts of fever, vomiting or diarrhea.”
If after all this doom and gloom you’re still highly concerned about mad cow disease, Klein’s best advice is to choose food produced using organic standards.
“Organic isn’t going to have an effect on E. coli or Salmonella, but it’s good if you want to avoid antibiotics or pesticide exposure, and you can also avoid the specter of BSE by eating organic meat. They can’t be fed parts of cows, and there are loopholes in conventional cow production,” says Klein.
Are you scared of foodborne illnesses? What steps do you take to avoid them?
Clare Leschin-Hoar covers seafood, sustainability and food politics. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, The Wall Street Journal, Grist, Eating Well and many more. @c_leschin