MAD COW in the USA

MAD COW in the USA
Posted By: 
Nancy Lieder
Sunday, July 03, 2005 01:35 pm

From the archives of the

As forwarded to me by
Aerielle Louise

A little dated - but interesting.

*Meating of the minds*
**Doctors, activists and beefindustry officials get in a froth over mad cow
By Newt Briggs

This year, the average American will consume about 65
pounds of beef. Sliced into steaks, pressed into
patties, squeezed into casings and inevitably slathered
with a rainbow of sauces and condiments, it will grace
dinner tables from the manor house to the clubhouse and
will net the U.S. cattle industry more than $44
billion. Most people will feast greedily--blissfully
ignorant of the cholesterol, saturated fat and other
potential hazards lurking in each juicy bite. But a few
will chew cautiously, silently fretting over a fatal
brain-wasting disease known as bovine spongiform
encephalopathy--or, more commonly, mad cow disease.

The biology of mad cow disease is unique and
complicated--a mouthful even for scientists--but
basically, it is caused by a defective protein, called
a prion, that instructs brain cells to shut down and
die. Generally speaking, it cannot be transmitted
through animal-to-animal or animal-to-human contact,
but can only be transmitted through the ingestion of
infected nervous tissue. In humans, the illness
manifests itself as a form of Creutzfeldt-Jacob
disease--a rare and fatal neuro-degenerative condition
that is said to have a frequency rate of about one in 1
million people.

To date, the largest outbreak of mad cow occurred in
the United Kingdom, where millions of cows were
slaughtered and burned in the \'90s to prevent a
potential worldwide BSE epidemic. Attributed to
barbaric feed practices within the British cattle
industry and a government-led initiative to obscure the
scope of the disease, mad cow has been linked to more
than 150 human deaths from mad cow-related CJD in
Europe and Asia. The United States has thus far been
spared a single human victim, but after a Washington
state dairy cow was diagnosed with BSE last December,
more and more people are wondering if beef really is
what\'s for dinner. And if it is, should we be concerned
that our next cheeseburger might turn us into a
vegetable? We asked a scientist, a veterinarian, an
industry lobbyist and a concerned mother--all of whom
have a vested interest in the safety of the American
beef supply.

*The scientist*

Maybe Colm Kelleher--a Las Vegas-based protein
biochemist who, until recently, was employed by
stargazing local billionaire Bob Bigelow--is a manic
street preacher shouting doom and gloom from a pulpit
made of innuendo and speculation. Then again, maybe the
Dublin-born scientist is an unlikely prophet preaching
the gospel in a temple full of carnivorous Pharisees.

Author of /Brain Trust/, a lengthy treatise on the
potential connection between mad cow and misdiagnosed
Alzheimer\'s disease, Kelleher speculates that BSE has
already taken root in the U.S. population and may be
responsible for an unexplained series of CJD deaths
around the country. The current medical consensus is
that diseased cattle can only transmit a variant form
of CJD--fittingly titled vCJD--to humans, but Kelleher
and a small band of colleagues argue that BSE-infected
meat can give rise to multiple forms of CJD. Drawing
from research conducted by Yale University and the
University of Pittsburgh, Kelleher further suggests
that many deaths previously attributed to Alzheimer\'s
and dementia may in fact be the fault of this
misunderstood killer.

As proof, Kelleher points to a 9,000 percent increase
in the domestic diagnosis of Alzheimer\'s disease since
1979. That year, according to statistics from the
Centers for Disease Control, 653 people died of
Alzheimer\'s disease in the United States. Twenty-three
years later, in 2002, 58,785 people died of
Alzheimer\'s. To him, it\'s an increase that cannot be
explained simply by an aging population and advanced
diagnosis techniques.

\"I\'m not suggesting that there is a connection between
Alzheimer\'s and BSE, but it is absolutely mind-boggling
that more people have not considered the potential
connection between tainted meat and brain-wasting
disease,\" Kelleher says. \"Current research simply does
not support the statement that eating beef is 100
percent safe.\"

Part of the problem is that, barring an autopsy, the
symptoms of CJD can look suspiciously like those of
Alzheimer\'s. \"It starts off pretty mild,\" says
Kelleher. \"You forget where you left your keys, you
forget your wife\'s anniversary. You forget simple
things, and then it gets more and more intense.
Eventually, you lose motor coordination, experience
violent seizures and forget who you are. By all
accounts, it\'s a horrible way to die.\"

The other, more significant part of the problem--at
least according to Kelleher--is that the meat industry
seems dead set against taking responsibility for
anything but successful barbecues. Even after clusters
of CJD appeared in Pennsylvania, Florida, Oregon,
Texas, New York and New Jersey--a statistical
improbability considering the supposedly sporadic
nature of the disease--the U.S. Department of
Agriculture and the CDC continue to insist that
everything is fine with the nation\'s beef.

\"There\'s a sense of complacency here, as if it could
never happen in our back yard,\" Kelleher says. \"If you
look back into the early 1990s, that\'s exactly what
they were saying in the U.K. It\'s like a terrifying
version of /Groundhog Day/.\"

*The veterinarian*

For animal lovers (or even animal well-wishers), the
language of the cattle industry can be downright
disturbing--particularly the language used to describe
sick cattle. \"Downers,\" for instance, are
non-ambulatory cows that are too sick to walk to
slaughter. Until December 2003, these cows were hauled
up the ramp and cast into the food supply, but after
the discovery of America\'s first mad cow, the USDA
officially banned the use of downers for human

It is one of several measures implemented by the USDA
and Food and Drug Administration to protect the public
from exposure to specified risk materials such as
brains, eyes, skulls and spinal cords. The agencies
also imposed restrictions on the use of advanced meat
recovery--a process in which machinery is used to strip
the remaining meat off cow skeletons. According to
Nevada state Veterinarian Dr. David Thain, these are
more than adequate precautions to protect the country\'s
96 million beef cows, including the 500,000 head in

\"The majority of us think the whole BSE issue has been
terribly overblown,\" Thain says. \"I don\'t know who
coined the phrase `mad cow,\' but it seems to have taken
on a life of its own.\"

Nevertheless, critics have taken issue with what they
consider major loopholes in the government\'s regulatory
agenda. \"The alleged `firewall\' unfortunately has so
many loopholes it looks like Swiss cheese,\" Kelleher
says. For example, the feed bans do not prevent
restaurant waste, which contains beef, from being fed
back to cattle. The feed bans also do not prevent the
common practice of force-feeding cattle blood to young
calves as a \"milk replacer.\" Both practices, says
Kelleher, could potentially transmit BSE.

Thain, however, says these are only mild concerns. \"The
blood meal, which is a significant protein feed source
for a lot of dairies and other cattle-raising
operations, has not been directly linked to the spread
of BSE in cattle,\" he says. \"Honestly, the plate waste
isn\'t much of an issue either. Rarely do you have
specified risk material in plate waste, and typically,
it isn\'t fed to cattle. Plate waste is fed to pigs, and
pigs do not appear to be susceptible to BSE.\"

The real risk, Thain suggests, is ranchers who fail to
follow the government\'s feed ban. Although Nevada has
had a BSE inspection program for two years, no one
monitors the day-to-day operations on the state\'s many
ranches and small farms.

\"There\'s nobody there looking over their shoulders,\"
says Thain. \"But all of the operations we\'ve done
inspections on are very aware of the feed ban and
they\'ve been following the regulations carefully. And
in talking to my colleagues in other states, it seems
like there\'s a really good compliance with the feed
bans nationwide. The FDA inspects the big feed
elevators, and I think they only discovered one
violation last year out of 1,900 inspections.\"

Thain\'s figures contrast sharply with a July 2004 MSNBC
story that claimed to have \"turned up about 100 recent
violations\" in domestic feed mills, but for him, it\'s
enough to give Grandma\'s country pot roast his
gold-star seal of approval. \"Is there a risk for the
public to be eating beef products?\" he says. \"No,
absolutely not. I can say that categorically.\"

*The lobbyist*

Oprah Winfrey may be big--so big, in fact, that she can
dole out houses, scholarships and new cars to her
fawning audiences--but her influence pales in
comparison to that of the U.S. beef industry. According
to the USDA, cash receipts for the U.S. livestock
market totaled more than $56 billion in 2003, 80
percent of which was generated by cattle and calves.
The sum represented nearly half of the gross receipts
taken in by the agriculture industry as a whole. In
other words, the American beef industry is truly a cash

So when Winfrey suggested on her daytime talk show in
1996 that she might give up hamburgers for fear of mad
cow disease, the beef lobby locked onto her head and
rode her to the ground like a feisty steer. Citing
Texas\' so-called \"veggie libel\" law--little-known
legislation that forbids false or disparaging remarks
about agricultural products--a group of Texas cattlemen
filed a pair of multimillion-dollar lawsuits against
Winfrey. Although she was ultimately vindicated in both
suits, the costly trial dragged out over six years and
nearly exhausted her resolve. The industry\'s message
was clear: You mess with the bull, you get the horns.

\"In the U.S., we\'re at record high levels of consumer
confidence about the safety of beef,\" says National
Cattlemen\'s Beef Association spokesman Gary Weber, who
appeared on an episode of \"Oprah\" immediately after the
mad cow fracas. \"Our latest surveys show that 91
percent of consumers are confident that U.S. beef is
free of BSE.\"

Weber attributes this consumer confidence to what he
describes as a \"very open, transparent, aggressive
campaign\" to protect both beef-sellers and beef-eaters.
The centerpiece of this effort is an intensive USDA
surveillance program intended to identify high-risk
cows older than 30 months and test them for BSE. The
culmination of a mad cow containment program that began
as early as 1990, Weber insists these \"targeted\"
measures will protect the American public from the
panic that seized the British Isles almost a decade

\"People in the United Kingdom believed that their
government had failed them,\" Weber says. \"And in the
absence of government, who but yourself will protect
you? So a lot of people decided, `I have to protect
myself. I\'m not eating beef.\' Here in the United
States, consumers have very high confidence in the FDA,
the USDA and cattle producers to do the right thing to
not only have healthy cattle but to protect the safety
of the food supply.\"

Here, again, Kelleher demurs, arguing that the USDA\'s
limited focus will not give a complete picture of the
distribution of mad cow within the entire cattle
population. In /Brain Trust/, he insists that the
government montioring program \"is largely a smokescreen
designed to hide their current policy of `don\'t look,
don\'t tell.\'\" He adds that effective testing procedures
have led to identification of a high number of
BSE-positive cases in Great Britian (182,547), Ireland
(1,417), France (919), Portugal (879), Switzerland
(453) and Japan (11).

\"It\'s laughable to think there has only been one
instance of BSE in the United States,\" Kelleher says.
\"Before the mad cow outbreak last December, 20,000
animals per year were tested out of a total of 35
million slaughtered. Now, they\'ve made so much brouhaha
and flag-waving about the fact that they\'re testing
200,000 out of 35 million. Look across at Japan or even
Ireland, and they\'re testing 100 percent of the beef
that reaches the supermarkets. That\'s the gold
standard. Everything else simply falls short.\"

*The mother*

It was a Tuesday afternoon in 1993 in Chicago when
Nancy Donley\'s 6-year-old son, Alex, came down with a
normal--if somewhat severe--stomachache. Less than a
week later, after a struggle that literally liquefied
his internal organs, Alex was dead. The culprit was E.
Coli 0157:H7, a bacterium found in cattle feces. Alex
had consumed it, along with a tainted hamburger, at a
family cookout just a few days earlier. Like Sherman
through Georgia, the microbe stormed through his body,
leaving nothing but destruction in its wake.

According to the CDC, foodborne pathogens cause 76
million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000
deaths in the United States each year. The USDA
estimates the annual economic loss from these illnesses
totals somewhere between $7 billion and $37 billion.
Yet according to Donley--the acting president of Safe
Tables Our Priority, a Vermont-based meat industry
watchdog group--these serious food-related infections
do not garner nearly the publicity that has been
showered on BSE.

\"Frankly, mad cow is one of those issues that has so
much drama surrounding it,\" Donley says. \"The visuals
of the staggering animals were so grisly and graphic
that it seemed to capture the public\'s imagination in a
way that other illnesses have not.\"

At least partially, Donley attributes this to the
widespread public failure to recognize the potential
danger of popular food items. \"People today just cannot
associate the possibility of significant illness or
death with something that they can purchase at their
grocery stores or eat at a restaurant.\" But she also
blames the domestic meat industry, which she calls
\"complacent\" and \"indifferent to the welfare of

\"The organisms that make people sick are found in the
intestinal tracks of animals,\" Donley says.
\"Unfortunately--and this is going to sound rather
cynical--they don\'t make the animals sick. As a result,
the industry and the ranchers don\'t take responsibility
for the problem because they don\'t view it as their

In contrast, Donley points to the foot-and-mouth
disease scare of 2001, which was swiftly contained by
decisive federal intervention. \"The government was all
over that immediately because it threatened to affect
the herd and to affect industry profits. It\'s a very
sad example of how we as a country are more concerned
about business interests than we are about the public

Echoing a recommendation made by the U.S. General
Accounting Office earlier this year, Donley and her
group are lobbying for the formation of unified
food-safety authority completely outside the
industry-friendly auspices of the USDA. \"There are
three things that I think government has a
responsibility to protect--the food that we eat, the
air that we breathe and the water that we drink,\" she
says. \"I don\'t think that\'s too much to ask.\"

*The verdict*

Whatever the truth about the dangers of BSE
contamination, the question remains: Why not just test
every cow that comes to market? One answer, according
to Thain, is that the process is prohibitively
expensive--not only because of the actual cost of
individual testing but because the nation is not even
close to equipped to process that many samples.

\"We\'ve kicked around a lot of different figures, but if
we went to test every cow that was slaughtered, we\'d
probably be looking at anywhere from $30 to $50 a
head,\" Thain says. \"Multiply that by 35 to 40 million,
and you\'re looking at a significant expenditure that
would eventually be passed on to the consumer in one
way or another.\"

The logic of conventional epidemiology states that a
sample of 268,500 cows would yield a BSE detection rate
of one in 10 million adult cattle at a certainty level
of 99 percent. But Kelleher does not believe mad cow
necessarily conforms to traditional statistical models.
\"My contention is that there is not enough known about
these prion diseases to make these cast-iron
assumptions,\" he says. \"So if you\'re making these
large, population-based, epidemiological predictions,
some of them are going to be based on very faulty

\"What I\'m advocating in this whole thing is a dramatic
testing increase, so that we can actually see what the
BSE baseline is,\" he adds. \"I\'m not suggesting that we
have the same kind of massive epidemic in the U.S. that
occurred in the U.K., but we should at least find out
where it\'s at.\"

Kelleher also endorses the standardization of CJD
tracking and a dramatic increase in the number of
autopsies performed on people who have died of
Alzheimer\'s, dementia and other neurological disorders.
Only then will doctors understand the real--if
any--connection between BSE and misdiagnosed
Alzheimer\'s disease.

Another problem with spongiform encephelopathies like
BSE and CJD is that they have lengthy incubation
periods, so if a confirmed case of mad cow-related CJD
appears in the human population, it can be assumed that
the disease has been active in the population for at
least 18 months. This is an issue not only because the
disease has proved to be as hearty as anthrax spores,
but because it has been shown that CJD can be
transferred from human to human through blood
transfusions. It all adds up to a potential
outbreak--not necessarily one on par with /28 Days
Later/, but certainly one worth taking every possible
precaution to prevent. As Kelleher says at the
conclusion of /Brain Trust/, \"If our government acts
now to discover the scope of the prion catastrophe
within our midst, we may still have cause for hope. It
is not too late.\"