Basket Cases: New research suggests that one cow with proven BSE actually represents 45 cows with undetected BSE.
We're All Going to Die!
(Or not.) Mad cow madness finally hits the U.S.A.
By Christine Wenc
What we witnessed over the holidays were some pretty irresponsible reassurances that our meat supply is safe, that our bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) detection system works, and that the recent discovery of mad cow disease in Washington state was probably an isolated incident. Ann M. Veneman, head of the U. S. Department of Agriculture, and Washington governor Gary Locke immediately began performing the 21st-century political media ritual of publicly broadcasting their beef eating after a BSE discovery.
Locke: "I intend to have prime rib on Christmas." Veneman: "I plan to serve beef for my Christmas dinner." None of this is any big surprise, given that our disease surveillance system, which Veneman oversees, seems to have been designed more to prevent the detection of BSE than anything else.
How else is it possible to explain this story that appeared in the New York Times? In May of last year, Dr. Stanley Prusiner, the scientist who won the Nobel Prize for his research into prions (abnormal proteins that cause BSE in cows and a similar disease in humans), finally met with Veneman, after having been rebuffed at his earlier attempts to meet, and told her that "it was just a matter of time" before BSE appeared in the United States and that we should immediately start testing every cow showing signs of illness, and eventually every cow upon slaughter.
The Times report continues: "A spokes-woman for Ms. Veneman, Julie Quick, said: 'We have met with many experts in this area, including Dr. Prusiner. We welcome as much scientific input and insight as we can get on this very important issue. We want to make sure that our actions are based on the best available science.'" A rational person might think that Prusiner's opinion was the best available science. His recommendations, however, were ignored, as rational people are not running the USDA.
Washington state's mad cow wasn't discovered until after it had been processed into hamburger and other products (just like about 200,000 other "downer" cows--cows that are too sick to stand--every year), and possibly shipped to grocery stores in a dozen or more states. To calm consumers' fears, Veneman and other meat industry spokespeople have been reciting some version of "the brain and spinal cord were removed from this cow, so don't worry!" Central nervous system tissue is the part of the cow where BSE prions are most highly concentrated, the most infectious part of the animal.
But don't be comforted. A 2002 USDA study found "unacceptable" central nervous system residue, including spinal cord tissue, in 35 percent of the meat that ends up in processed meat items like hot dogs, pizza toppings, and hamburger.
As it turns out, spinal cord is difficult to remove and bits tend to get left behind in the very rapid-paced slaughterhouse environment. After ordinary slaughter, almost all cows in the country are processed using Advanced Meat Recovery systems, which scour the carcass of as much leftover meat and, um, stuff as the machine can get, and this is known to scatter central nervous system tissue all over the place.
In any case, when the cow is killed with a bolt gun to the head (a practice known as stunning), brain tissue enters the bloodstream and is pumped into the rest of the body as the animal dies. When the cow is then sawed in half, right down the spine, it's another opportunity to splatter brains, spinal cord, and prions everywhere. Thus, any official assurance that no brain or spinal cord entered the food supply from Washington state's mad cow rings hollow, and Veneman should know this.
But back to the cow in question: Why are U.S. consumers eating downer cows anyway? Washington just banned consumption of downers Dec. 30, but only about 10 percent of downer cows are even tested for BSE, despite the fact that paralysis is a symptom of mad cow disease. It's been routine for sick cows to be made into food. As of September 2003, according to the FDA, at least four Washington feed companies were part of the 300 in national violation of the no-feeding-cows-to-cows ban enacted in 1997, intended to discourage the spread of BSE.
A U.S. General Accounting Office study issued in 2000, three years after the ban, showed that 18 percent of feed processing firms did not even know the ban existed. Twenty-eight percent were not properly labeling feed prohibited for sale as cow feed. The FDA sent only two warning letters to feed mills violating the ban between 1997 and April 2001.
For this and other reasons, many industry observers have long asserted that American BSE testing standards and feed-ban enforcement are shamefully inadequate. In nine years, the United States has tested fewer than 30,000 out of about 300 million slaughtered cows, and that using an outdated test which yields results in days or weeks rather than the rapid tests used in Europe and Japan, where most or all cattle are tested--even cattle that show no signs of disease, which is crucial in distinguishing accurate BSE population numbers because of the disease's long incubation period. The United States also remains in violation of the 1996 World Health Organization guidelines designed to prevent the spread of BSE.
So it's all bad, and we're all gonna die of spongy brain disease in five or 10 or 20 years. Or not. It is true that muscle meat does not have nearly the concentration of prions that central nervous system tissue does, and it's certainly true that prion research is in its infancy.
And while people in a panic returned unopened hot dog packs to Safeway, and various nations ban imports of American beef, we might want to pause and consider that only about 150 people worldwide have died of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (the human prion disease). You have a better chance of dying in childbirth. And if you stopped eating beef this week but are still smoking, well, maybe you should rethink your dying-a-slow-horrible-death risk factors.
But if I may be hysterical again for just a moment, it turns out that regular ol' Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease may be spread by eating mad cows. Previously it was thought to only arise spontaneously in one in a million people, and then only in people over the age of about 60. Only the variant form of the disease was thought to come from eating mad cows.
However, "ordinary" Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease cases seem to be increasing, and there are more cases among younger people, including in the United States--a warning flag for transmission from mad cow. But the picture is muddied and will likely be for some time. Only 12 states even consider Creutzfeldt-Jakob a reportable disease; additionally, it is often confused with other conditions.
Some Internet rants suggest that we should just give up and consider BSE to be one of the risks involved with eating meat, along with salmonella, E. coli, and heart disease. Interesting idea. If the world continues to be infected with BSE, then this may very well be the case, and rather than just a few hours of puking and diarrhea or the odd heart attack, every meat eater will instead be entertaining the possibility of dementia and a yearlong wasting death.
A semivegetarian, I wouldn't mind eating beef more regularly again, because, after all, it can be extremely tasty. But it would have to be produced on a small, family-run, nonfactory farm. And if I wanted to make that Julia Child meatloaf again, I would think about grinding the beef myself. Because I don't think that anyone should eat industrial hamburger, not even a dog.
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From the January 15-21, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.