There is probably no illness that has more terrifying symptoms, or a more ghastly outcome, than variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) -- best known as mad cow disease. Abnormal proteins called prions found in brain tissue of cows suffering from bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) can cause vCJD in humans who eat meat from the animals. These mad cow disease-causing prions can literally result in people losing their minds because the infectious particles eat away at the brain, leaving tiny sponge-like holes. There is no treatment available and death always follows.
With government regulations notoriously lax when it comes to testing for BSE in the food supply, many people have given up eating beef in hopes of protecting themselves from exposure to mad cow disease. But an article just published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease suggests there may be another ticking time bomb source of vCJD -- farmed fish.
In a paper entitled Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy and Aquaculture, University of Kentucky neurologist Robert P. Friedland and colleagues point out that fish consumption is widely recommended because omega-3 fatty acids are known to reduce the risks of cardiovascular and Alzheimer's diseases. However, the scientists have doubts that the health benefits of farmed fish outweigh a potentially deadly danger. "We are concerned that consumption of farmed fish may provide a means of transmission of infectious prions from cows with bovine spongiform encephalopathy to humans, causing variant Creutzfeldt Jakob disease," they stated.
Dr. Friedland and his team point out that farmed fish are fed byproducts rendered from cows -- a totally unnatural source of food for fish. The risk of transmission of mad cow disease to humans who eat farmed fish would seem to be slim because there are often barriers between species that help prevent infections. But, according to the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease article, there are several reasons to be concerned about fish spreading mad cow to humans.
First, fish could be carriers of the disease from eating infected meat products, even though the fish themselves are not obviously infected or sick. In addition, it is possible that eating prion-infected cow parts could result in fish experiencing pathological changes that permit the prion infection to be transmitted between the two species. Based on these worrisome possibilities, the scientists are calling for government regulators to ban feeding cow meat or bone meal to fish until this common practice can be shown to be safe.
"We have not proven that it's possible for fish to transmit the disease to humans. Still, we believe that out of reasonable caution for public health, the practice of feeding rendered cows to fish should be prohibited. Fish do very well in the seas without eating cows," Friedland said in an interview with the Kentucky Post newspaper.
"The fact that no cases of Creutzfeldt Jakob disease have been linked to eating farmed fish does not assure that feeding rendered cow parts to fish is safe. The incubation period of these diseases may last for decades, which makes the association between feeding practices and infection difficult. Enhanced safeguards need to be put in place to protect the public," Friedland stated.