BSE or 'Mad Cow Disease' information.


Up to date ISU Link for BSE or Mad Cow Disease.

Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) is the scientific term for a disease which affects the brains of cattle.  Soon after BSE was first discovered in the United Kingdom, it became more commonly known as "mad cow disease," most likely because of the emotional response it generated with the public. 

Unlike most livestock diseases, BSE is not caused by a bacterial or viral infection, but rather is the result of infectious prions.  These are unique proteins that may bond with a cow's brain cells, altering their composition and ultimately leading to the animal's death.  Mad cow disease is believed to be transferred to cattle when they eat these infectious proteins, yet science has shown the disease can only affect those cows that are genetically susceptible.


The first U.S. case of mad cow disease was confirmed in a Washington state dairy cow on Dec. 23, 2003.  That cow had originated in Alberta, Canada, where a case of BSE had been reported in May 2003.  The U.S. case prompted USDA to launch a more aggressive surveillance program.  The Department of Agriculture banned the slaughter of "downed" cattle for human consumption, as the infected animal was not able to walk when it was sent to slaughter.

For More Information Ask These ISU Experts

Dr. Nolan Hartwig, ISU veterinary diagnostic and production animal medicine professor and Extension veterinarian, can speak on issues related to food safety, how mad cow disease is spread, and how it is controlled and regulated. He may be reached at (515) 294-0711 (office) or

John Lawrence, ISU livestock economist, associate professor and director of the Iowa Beef Center, is a frequent media source on livestock economics and beef marketing. He may be reached at (515) 294-6290 (office) or Additional information is available online at

Shane Ellis, livestock market Extension economist (affiliated with the Iowa Beef Center), can comment on livestock economics and beef marketing. He may be reached at (515) 294-8030 or

Bob Wisner, University Professor and Extension economist, can talk about how mad cow disease can affect grain markets. This time around, Wisner says he doesn't expect the confirmation of mad cow disease to significantly affect the markets. Rather, he said, dry weather in eastern and southeastern Iowa is the dominant influence in the grain markets now. Wisner can be reached at (515) 294-6310, or

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