Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) from Philip's Encyclopedia

In cattle, degeneration of the brain caused by prions, transmitted by feeding infected meat. It is also known as 'mad cow disease'. See also Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD)

Summary Article: Mad Cow Disease
from The American Economy: A Historical Encyclopedia

Progressive neurological disorder that afflicts the central nervous system of cattle, the spread of which the U.S. government continues to prevent in the United States.

Bovine spongiform encephalopahy (BSE) causes animals infected with it to die because no vaccine or treatment exists. The source of the epidemic apparently involved animal feed containing contaminated meat and bone meal in Britain in 1985. The disease has affected herds in Europe since 1985, but no case has been found in the United States.

BSE is a variant of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE). Some forms of TSEs—Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), fatal familial insomnia, Gertsmann-Straussler-Seheinker Disease, kuru, and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD)—afflict humans, whereas others affect animals and are often species-specific. In humans, TSEs cause slow degeneration of the central nervous system with dementia and loss of motor skills. According to the World Health Organization, the newly recognized vCJD is strongly linked to BSE and probably comes from consuming contaminated beef. All reported cases of BSE and vCJD have been in Europe, primarily in the United Kingdom. Since 1998 there has been a steady decline in the incidences of both types of cases.

BSE has had far-reaching economic consequences. The most visible outcome has been the destruction of hundreds of thousands of cattle throughout Europe. In addition, producers have experienced losses because of the ban on exporting beef or beef by-products. Other obvious costs include the establishment of government programs to monitor cattle production and to establish prevention programs. Much more difficult to assess are two consequences that are more subtle. The first is the effect of the loss of consumer confidence and the reduction in beef consumption. The second is the tension among nations with the imposition of trade barriers. For example, the United States has not imported beef from the United Kingdom since 1985, has barred importation of ruminant animals and at-risk products from nations with confirmed cases of BSE, has banned the inclusion of mammal-derived animal protein by-products in cattle feed, and has barred all imports of rendered animal protein from Europe without regard to species.

See also: Volume One: Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

  • World Health Organization. “Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy Fact Sheet.” Updated November 2002. Available:; accessed September 4, 2001.
  • Susan Coleman
    Copyright 2011 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

    Related Articles

    Full text Article Mad Cow Disease
    Green Food: An A-to-Z Guide

    These U.S. Department of Agriculture technicians helped track the first case of mad cow disease in the United States. U.S. efforts to...

    Full text Article Mad Cow Disease
    Encyclopedia of Environment and Society

    MAD COW DISEASE, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is a degenerative disease of the nervous system in cattle. It is always fatal. Cattle...

    Full text Article Mad Cow Disease
    Contemporary World Issues: Food Safety: A Reference Handbook, Second Edition

    Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) is a disease that strikes cows causing them to develop spongy areas in their brains and suffer...

    See more from Credo