The question was raised for me after checking out Pakistani restaurant Usmania, which we reviewed this week. Usmania serves a dish called brain masala, a karahi-cooked curry made from the cerebral matter of goats. In the review, I mention my fiancee was adamant I not eat this dish. But I left out the why: She didn't think eating brains was safe.
Call it Mad Cow fallout, but Danielle was terrified that by ingesting the brains of a ruminant I would be exposing myself to dangerous, brain-altering prions. After a plate of brain curry, she worried, my brain might end up looking like a used dish sponge.
Fortunately for me, and aspiring brain eaters everywhere, there's absolutely no evidence to suggest that eating goat or lamb brains will give you "Mad Cow," or any other prion-related disease for that matter.
What exactly is a prion? Essentially, they are infectious, non-replicating proteins that may or may not cause a host of neurological diseases in animals and humans. The truth is, researchers still not very clear on that part. It is, however, widely believed that prions found in cattle are the cause of both bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or Mad Cow disease, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, its human variant. These diseases alter the brain of their host, causing tissue to develop "holes" that eventually lead to death. Both can incubate for a number of years, and, even when found, are entirely untreatable.
Scared yet? Don't be. Despite thousands of cases of BSE discovered in Europe and the UK, there have only ever been 153 cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob documented. Even then, it's not entirely clear that consuming animal protein infected with BSE was the root cause of those infections. In the U.S., only one cow -- a dairy cow -- was ever found to have contracted BSE. And none of that animal's nervous system tissue ever made its way into the food chain.
Further, the root cause of the BSE scare was believed to stem from improperly treated bone meal fed to cattle. Since then, regulations governing the preparation of such feed have been stiffened in Europe. There was never such a problem in the U.S.
Basically, your chance of contracting "Mad Cow" disease by eating beef is nil.
But what about by eating brains? For elaboration, I contacted Dennis Avery, the Director for the Center for Global Food Issues based out of Virginia. The Center operates mad-cow-facts.com, a website launched to dispel misinformation about the disease and its causes. I asked Avery if eating goat, lamb, or calf brains could contribute to contracting CJD.
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"We have absolutely no evidence to suggest that it's possible," Avery said.
According to Avery, researchers actually don't know much of anything regarding what prions may exist in the brains or sheep or lambs and whether or not they have any sort of impact on humans. But what we do know is humans and animals have been eating brains throughout history without any known ill effects.
"Predators have been consuming brains since time immemorial," says Avery, "and there's no visible reason to say we have to stop that now."
In short: There's never been any reason to shy away from eating brains, other than personal taste. So those of you interested in chomping down on brain masala can eat up in peace.