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Infectious Diseases

Risk of Mad Cow Disease via Gelatin in Pills




I would like to know if I should be concerned with the risk of contracting "bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)" or its human variant, from the use of vitamins, supplements, over the counter medication, or pills prescribed by a doctor which contain gelatin ?

I understand that one of the main components of gelatin comes from the bones and skin of cows and that it is often imported from other countries. I also understand that it is highly unlikely that the standard processes involved in producing gelatin would ever remove or disable the BSE contamination.

It is also very alarming that BSE has a long incubation period (years) whereby the infected person has no symptoms. However, when symptoms do occur, the person dies a horrible death, via a deformed and shrinking brain, usually soon thereafter.

Since gelatin is used in so many food products, is it realistic to try avoid all gelatin ?

What are the mathematical chances of contracting the disease from gelatin in a food product ?

Is there less gelatin in a standard hard pill as opposed to a "soft gel" capsule ?

I feel the FDA, U.S. Government, and more importantly, the food and supplement industries, should do more to insure that all food products and supplements used in America are free from contamination of this horrible disease in order to prevent any chance of an outbreak like the one seen in Europe a few years ago.

I would appreciate your thoughts on this subject.

Thank you.


To answer your first question, there is a theoretical risk of transmission of transmissible encephalopathies in any product that has used affected animals. However, I need to point out that there has never been a confirmed case of this occurring with gelatin capsules. Furthermore, the animal components that you mention with the skin and bones are less likely to be infectious (if an animal is indeed infected) than other components  such as nervous tissue or lymph tissue. As I am not a specialist in consumable foodstuffs and do not know which items may have gelatin present, I cannot answer your second question. As to the third question, again, I am not a mathematical specialist and cannot answer it. But, with the point that there has not been a confirmed occurrence of a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy in a human being from gelatin, I would suspect that the odds of this occurring are extremely low (if almost impossible). Please remember that the occurrence of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the prototypical spongiform encephalopathy of humans, is extremely low (about 1 per 1 million population). This makes it extremely unlikely that anyone will develop this disease. As to your last question, again, I am not a specialist in pill content, the FDA, which you mention, may be able to provide you with more information on that point. 

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Response by:

Stephen   Kralovic, MD Stephen Kralovic, MD
Associate Professor
College of Medicine
University of Cincinnati