Animal Disease and Human Health Risk
Animal Disease and Human Health Risk
What Animal Products are Free of Prions?
Many consumers have become aware of at least some of these compelling statistics
regarding prion-related diseases. This has naturally prompted questions as to
which animal products present risk to humans. Most of the focus of late has been on
beef, which is warranted. Although organ tissue carries the greatest risk, animal
studies do suggest that meat (from animal muscle alone) can transmit prion-related
diseases.47 This is not surprising since muscle is interlaced with lymph and nervous
tissue--two tissues known to be infected with BSE.48 However, we cannot exclude
the possibility that milk may also carry disease-inducing prions. Many may recall
how some years ago assurances were given that a mother could not pass HIV to her
child by nursing.49 Of course, we now know that HIV can be transmitted in breast
Granted, prion diseases are vastly different from HIV. The risk from milk does appear
to be much smaller than from eating beef or cattle organ tissues. Nonetheless, a
British BSE expert has pointed out that at least one human case suggests passage of
prions in milk. A Japanese woman dying of CJD was found to have the infectious agent
in her colostrum (the type of breast milk made in the initial days following delivery).51
Milk has been under suspicion in established medical circles. It was one of the products
targeted when the United Kingdom was beginning to recognize the magnitude of the mad
cow problem. The action taken against milk by the British government is explained in
Figure 11: Milk from BSE Infected Cattle is Banned.52
Both humans and animals were banned from consuming an infected cow's milk. Unfortunately,
as we have already noted, animals are infected with the BSE prion long before they manifest
any symptoms. When infected symptom-free cows are milked, their milk is mixed in
collection tanks with milk from healthy cows. If the prion is present in milk, it could
theoretically contaminate the whole collection tank. Pasteurization cannot destroy prions,
so that process provides no consolation. Although at this time it cannot be stated for
certain that milk can transmit a prion-related disease, many are wondering: is it worth
taking the chance?
Eating the flesh of animals other than cows or drinking their milk may not be safe either.
These other animals may also be infected with prion-related diseases. As already mentioned,
some 20 animal species, including sheep and goats, can become infected with the
transmissible spongiform encephalopathies.
Suspicions are also raised concerning products made from animal glands. Health food
stores often feature a variety of supplements that include glandular extracts. These
agents appear to have a higher risk of prion contamination and thus I think it is
prudent to avoid them.
47 Dealler S, Lacey R. Beef and bovine spongiform encephalopathy: the risk persists. Nutr
48 Groschup MH, Weiland F, Pfaff E "Detection of scrapie agent in the peripheral nervous
system of diseased sheep." Goettingen prion meeting November 1995
49 Jelliffe DB, Jelliffe EF. HIV and breastmilk: non-proven alarmism. J Trop Pediatr
50 US Dept. Of Health and Human Services. Managing Early HIV Infection Quick Reference
Guide for Clinicians: Number 7. AHCPR Publication No. 94-0573, January 1994 p. 14.
51 Tamai Y, Kojima H, et al. Demonstration of the transmissible agent in tissue from a
pregnant woman with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. N Engl J Med 1992 Aug 27;327(9):649.
52 Pratt K. Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy. Fact sheet. Animal and Plant Health
Inspection Services (APHIS). U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1991Jul p. 1.
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