World Review Jan. 12, 2004 / 18 Teves,
Holy Cow? Why there is no such thing
as Meshuga Cow Disease
By Y. Elchonon
As America — indeed, much of the Western
world — rushes to prevent further outbreaks of Mad Cow disease, Big Beef
officials might spend a moment examining why there has yet to be a
recorded instance of the malady inflicting the kosher meat supply.
Of all the food safety concerns raised by the discovery of Mad Cow
disease two weeks ago, perhaps none is more focused than the questions
about ground beef, the main ingredient for hamburger, a staple of many
an American's diet.
Hamburger meat from the infected cow actually made its way into the
distribution system before the Mad Cow diagnosis was confirmed,
prompting a hamburger meat recall in eight Western states and the US
territory of Guam.
As opposed to other cuts of meat which are generally identified as to
their source of origin on the cow, most non-kosher hamburger meat sold
in this country is combined from several animals, and different parts of
those animals as well, some of which are much safer than others, with
regard to Mad Cow disease. Scientists believe that the Mad Cow infection
is harbored in the cow's nervous system, which has led to requirements
on American meat plants to treat the brains and spinal cords of all
slaughtered animals as unfit for human consumption. But there is still a
problem, because cuts of meat taken from near a cow's spinal column
might still be contaminated with nearby nerve tissue.
In terms of kosher cuts of meat, that would include standing rib roast,
chuck or round steaks, as well as beef stock made from neck bones.
The risk is greater for those same cuts of meat from non-kosher
slaughterhouses, because many of them use advanced machinery to take
every piece of meat off the bone, right up to the spinal column,
increasing the likelihood of having Mad Cow contaminated nerve tissue
Also, once infected, it doesn't matter how long the meat is cooked,
because, unlike other food contaminations, such as E coli the prions
that cause Mad Cow disease are not neutralized by cooking temperatures.
Irradiation, another widely used method to decontaminate meat from other
sources of infection, does not help make mad cow contaminated meat any
WAYS IN WHICH KOSHER MEAT IS SAFER
Buying kosher meat does seem to be safer with
regard to the Mad Cow threat. For starters, no downer cow too sick to
walk on its own power would ever be slaughtered.
According to Rabbi Shalom Fishbane, Kashrus (kosher)
Administrator for the Chicago Rabbinical Council (cRc), a "downer" cow
is referred to in Jewish legal literature as a mesukenes, and
would not be acceptable, according to current standards, as suitable for
But until the newly announced US Department of Agriculture (USDA)
regulations forbidding it went into effect last week, 190,000 downer
cows a year were slaughtered for their meat and allowed to enter the
distribution system, with the only proviso being the removal of their
brain and spinal column tissue. Kosher slaughtered cows, in contrast,
are generally too young to exhibit Mad Cow symptoms, even if they have
been exposed to the disease. Kosher slaughterhouses typically use cows
between 18-24 months old, whereas the symptoms of Mad Cow disease do not
generally appear until an infected cow is at least four or five years
A LESSON ABOUT BEING ‘INHUMANE’
Another potential Mad Cow risk factor not present
in kosher slaughtered meat is the stunning of cows with a blow to the
head, a practice now banned by the new USDA regulations. The fatal
stunning blow to the animal's skull often winds splattering potentially
infected brain matter throughout the animal's body, contaminating
muscles and organs that would otherwise not pose a danger of spreading
the Mad Cow infection.
Rabbi Fishbane notes the irony in the fact that in European countries
where the legality of kosher slaughtered meat has been challenged, the
complaint against it has been that it is less humane than stunning the
cow. Now, it turns out that stunning cattle in non-kosher
slaughterhouses is a major health hazard in its own right.
However, Rabbi Fishbane observes that common practice in kosher
slaughterhouses further reduces the likelihood of mad cow infections.
He says that feedlot cattle, those most susceptible to contracting Mad
Cow from contaminated feed, are generally less healthy than
pasture-raised, grass-fed beef, which are never exposed to the Mad Cow
threat. More of the healthier grass-fed animals are therefore found to
be kosher after slaughter than feedlot raised cattle, by a ratio of
As a result, for strictly commercial reasons, kosher slaughterhouses
generally prefer to use a higher percentage of the safer grass-fed beef
than nonkosher slaughterhouses do, further reducing the Mad Cow risk to