While the California dairy cow that tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, made national headlines, University of Georgia livestock and food safety experts say the real story is how well the nation’s food safety system worked.

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, “was identified in a dairy cow, and the cow never entered the food supply,” said Judy Harrison, a professor and UGA Cooperative Extension food safety specialist in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

“It is not passed through milk, and we have many tests in place in this country to make sure problems like this are not a threat to the food supply. … This case is a good example to consumers of how the system works to keep their food safe.”

BSE first made headlines in the late 1980s with a mass outbreak in Great Britain. It’s a degenerative disease caused by small proteins called prions that attack the cow’s central nervous system. Prions are less complex than viruses but are still able to reproduce their genetic material and damage cells.

The disease caused herds of cows in Britain to act erratically and then gradually lose most of their motor function, leading to the lay term “mad cow disease.”

After eating beef that was tainted with these prions, some humans also contracted the human form of the disease.

Since the late 1980s, the USDA, the FDA and the beef industry have completely changed their practices regarding the handling of cattle and beef bound for human consumption, said Ronnie Silcox, an associate professor of animal science in the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

These changes have made it nearly impossible for a tainted cow to make it to a processing facility — much less make it onto a family’s dinner table.

The disease spread through Great Britain’s cattle supply so quickly because of the use of animal feed made from beef by-products. The practice of feeding mammalian by-products to cattle has since been banned, and beef processors now remove the spine and brain from beef carcasses before they are processed.

Any cow that cannot walk into a processing facility is suspected of having BSE, excluded from the food supply and tested. Farmers and stockyards now routinely test older and sick cows for BSE, Silcox said.