US declines to go nuts over `mad squirrels'

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Squirrel-eating might not be in the mainstream of the American dining experience but it has a venerable tradition in a predominantly rural area embracing Kentucky, West Virginia and Alabama. Squirrel meat is also prized by gourmets: America's classic-cookery expert, James Beard, said: "It has been written about rapturously for years and has long been associated with elegant dining as well as with the simple food of the trapper and the nomad".

But the warning by Kentucky doctors this week applies only to one aspect of squirrel cuisine, the brains, consumed mostly by families in the west of the state. An expert quoted by the New York Times said families tend to eat either the meat or the brains, depending on tradition, but not both.

For brain-eaters, squirrel brains are considered a delicacy and may be prepared in several ways. One, described as a gift-giving ritual, involves presentation of a severed squirrel head to the mother of the family, who shaves and fries it. The skull is ceremonially cracked at the dinner table. The brains may also be scooped out and added to scrambled eggs or served by themselves in a spicy white gravy, a Southern breakfast speciality.

Squirrels are hunted between now and December but the many run over on roads may also find their way into the pot. Following publication of findings that link eating squirrel brains with CJD, hunters have been asked to send them for testing .

While Americans seem prone to panic where food safety is concerned, the possibility of "mad-squirrel disease" appearing in humans has caused barely a ripple.

This is probably not just because the number of habitual squirrel-eaters is small but because the findings are overshadowed by a bigger scare, the recall of more than 1 million pounds of hamburgers because of possible contamination with the potentially deadly E coli bacteria.

However, the implications of the findings in Kentucky are serious, because they show there are instances of CJD in the US that appear to have been caused by consumption of infected animals. To date, however, there have been no reported cases of BSE in US beef herds, which would be the real nightmare scenario for the vast American beef industry.