Mad Cow Disease in the U.S.?
When British Health Minister Stephen Dorell faced the House of Commons March 20 and announced that eating beef contaminated with mad cow disease was the "most likely explanation" for the deaths of 10 of his countrymen, two things happened almost simultaneously: the bottom fell out of the British beef market and the public relations branches of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration went into overdrive in an effort to convince Americans that domestic beef was safe. A week after the British announcement, U.S. beef producers held a cook-out for reporters in Texas hosted by Agriculture Commissioner Rick Perry who handed out briskets and moralized about the need to "avoid hysteria about domestic beef." And in response to Britain's apparently human-linked outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (or BSE, the technical term for mad cow disease), the USDA convened more than 70 international health, agriculture and scientific experts to "ensure that the United States maintains a coordinated, science-based and effective approach that will keep the U.S. free of BSE.""BSE does not exist in the United States," reads a March 22 press release from the USDA. As reassuring as these statements and measures may seem, many health experts think that American consumers are looking down the same barrel of deceit as the British have since the disease was discovered a decade ago. Similar statements of reassurance regarding "mad" cows were made by British health and agriculture experts as recently as last December. Even British Prime Minister John Major declared that there was no link between the disease and human health.But when 10 people died of a degenerative brain affliction called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the Brits were forced to change their minds. Creutzfeldt-Jakob usually affects people over the age of 60 and is similar in many ways to Alzheimer's disease, though it's far more rare. The 10 victims that gave the British health experts worry were all under the age of 42, three of them teenagers. The disease is distressingly similar to mad cow in that the brain of the victim literally rots away. After a decade of denials, British health officials finally admitted there was a likely connection between the fatalities and what they had said all along was of no risk to humans: mad cow disease.U.S. officials, after witnessing the overnight collapse of the British beef market, went on a PR blitzkrieg to assure the public that American beef was all but immune to the epidemic that has so far killed 150,000 British cattle. Their reassurances, however, seem to be based on little more than wishful thinking; not only does the situation exist for an outbreak of mad cow disease in the U.S., but an American version of it might already infect domestic herds.It may only be a matter of time before mad cow disease, or something similar, claims its first American victims.SOURCE OF TROUBLEMad cow disease was first discovered in England in 1985 when seven cows dropped dead from a peculiar neural disorder characterized by drooling, distemper and a loss of coordination; hence they were termed "mad." The cows were infected with the bovine form of transmittable spongiform encephalopathy (TSE), a contagious disease which occurs spontaneously at very low instances in all mammals and is 100 percent fatal. TSE is believed to be caused by a mutant body protein called a prion that is "capable of hijacking cell replication mechanisms in order to replicate itself" according to a report by Dr. Stuart Neilson, director of medical information systems at the Centre for the Study of Health at Brunel University in England. The disease can be spread from animal to animal and species to species by the consumption of infected flesh."There is no doubt that spongiform disease can and does cross the species barrier by oral transmission," writes Neilson. While it would seem that non-carnivorous cows would be the last place for an outbreak of a cannibal disease to occur, a little-known facet of the worldwide beef industry is promoting what some call "cow cannibalism." Dead cattle, sheep, goats and other animals are routinely recycled back into the food chain through a high-temperature incineration process called rendering. Protein retrieved from rendered carcasses is used to supplement cattle feed, pet food and cosmetics.Mad cow disease in England apparently resulted from rendered sheep that were infected with a brain disease called "scrapie." Since prions, the disease-causing proteins, can survive temperatures of up to 360 degrees Centigrade, some of the sheep proteins used in cattle feed were actually TSE-causing agents. Continuing and accelerating the disease cycle was the fact that infected cattle were being rendered and fed back to the healthy herd population, causing the disease to bloom into an epidemic.Great Britain finally banned rendering in 1989 after nearly 10,000 cases of mad cow had been confirmed. But due to the long latency of the disease (between 5 and 20 years) new cases continue to be reported annually, though the number is slowly decreasing. According to Neilson, because "eight times as many animals as originally predicted became infected, the decline (in infected animals) took much longer to arrive than predicted, and the decline has been much slower than predicted," the full human health aspects of mad cow disease have yet to be realized. If the latency period in humans is anything like it is in cows, it could be well into the next century before the true human health impact is known.DOLLARS AND SENSEIn spite of everything that has happened in England and the fact that scrapie-infected sheep have always been (and continue to be) rendered into cattle feed in the U.S., the USDA continues to claim that there is nothing unsafe about American beef. In fact, other than public relations efforts to bolster "public perception" of domestic beef, little has been done to prevent a similar epidemic from occurring here. According to the National Renderers Association, about 12 million tons of material continues to be rendered into animal feed annually in the United States, a figure that will likely remain unchanged until someone actually dies of a meat-borne neural illness here in America.Which is not necessarily surprising. Though the connection between the rendering industry, mad cow disease and the new strain of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease that claimed 10 British lives seems obvious, the U.S. beef industry continues to base its claims of safety on the fact that there is still no conclusive evidence to that end."There are no scientific links between mad cow disease and the cattle industry," says K.T. Miller, director of public relations for Monfort Inc., the meat-processing plant in Greeley, Colo. and refused to speak further. Miller, however, is conspicuously alone in making such a broad claim. Several thousand dead cows link the disease to the cattle industry, and even the most skeptical observers admit that rendering is the most plausible explanation for the epidemic's outbreak. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association, which has a huge vested interest in the public acceptance of beef's safety, admits that "although questions remain ... the consensus of opinion is that inclusion of ruminant-derived proteins in animal feeds [derived from cattle or sheep] was the mechanism of spread of the infectious agent." If that's indeed the consensus opinion, the question being asked by concerned experts is why isn't something being done to regulate the rendering industry?"We have all the risk factors. Just because [mad cow disease] hasn't been diagnosed doesn't mean we're not somewhere in the cycle," says Dr. Richard Marsh, professor of Animal Health and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Wisconsin. "If you believe what happened in Great Britain, then you have to believe that we're at risk over here. It's obvious. I mean, we have scrapie in our sheep and we feed sheep to our cattle. ... What's the argument about?"The argument, of course, is about money. The truth is that big beef corporations have good reason to remain hopelessly optimistic in the face of increasingly negative information regarding mad cow disease. The U.S. rendering industry accounts for $3 billion in revenue per year, and that's just from sales of protein to feed plants. Domestic and international beef sales reach into the tens of billions of dollars and represent a substantial portion of the American economy."Eleven percent of the value of all our beef production here in terms of fed cattle is in the export market. We sell a lot of beef to the Pacific Rim and various other countries and if those countries lose confidence in our product, it means we can't sell and that's an extremely important source of revenue for the entire industry," says Dr. William Shulaw, an extension veterinarian at Ohio State University who works closely with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.He noted that British beef is essentially worthless due to the mad cow epidemic and U.S. federal regulatory agencies aren't willing to risk a huge chunk of American revenue on unproved theories, however strong and conclusive they might seem. After all, beef industry spokespeople are quick to remind us, mad cow disease has yet to be reported in the U.S. This is little assurance, however. To assume that it can't happen here is taking a gigantic gamble with human health, according to Marsh who predicts an epidemic similar to the one in England.SMOKE SCREENIn order to keep the price of American beef strong, the USDA has little choice but to maintain the public's faith, lest the industry suffer the same fate as that of England. To that end, the agency has been very public about the steps the U.S. has been taking to ensure that "U.S. beef remains BSE-free." Among those steps is increased scrutiny of American herds by scientists and veterinarians of the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), closer monitoring for Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease by the Center for Disease Control, and a voluntary ban on the rendering of ruminants proposed by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.Though this might sound like adequate safe-guarding, these measures amount to little more than lip service. Due to the long and invisible dormancy of BSE, APHIS scientists could likely overlook infected cattle that have yet to show symptoms of mad cow disease. Similarly, though CDC doctors have promised to look closer for Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, there is no known method of testing for it, and, according to CDC spokesman Tom Skinner, it's highly likely that many cases are misdiagnosed as Alzheimer's due to their similarity.But the biggest snow job of all is the unenforceable voluntary ban on ruminant rendering. The much ballyhooed proposal coincided with a recommendation by the World Health Organization that the practice be banned worldwide.According to press release statements, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, National Milk Producers Federation, the American Sheep Industry Association and a wide variety of veterinary and agriculture organizations decided to propose the voluntary ban after it was "made clear the feeding of ruminant-derived protein to ruminants in Great Britain and Europe was the primary risk factor in the development and spread of BSE." There is little illusion as to how effective the voluntary ban will be, however. Even Don Franco, head of scientific services for the National Renderers Association, said that he was "more than dubious" that anyone would comply with it."I personally don't see how the ban is going to work properly," he said. "I think people are going to do what they are going to do based on the market trends. I have serious doubts about whether that would work. Voluntary bans don't work very well in a free-market enterprise."Not to mention the fact that there's a lot of money to be lost by complying with the voluntary ban. According to a memo written for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association by Dr. Shulaw, "It is certain that for some packers and renderers significant impact will be felt as product is redirected." Franco couldn't think of one company presently complying with the ban.TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE Unfortunately, an American version of mad cow disease may already infect domestic herds, according to studies conducted by Marsh. In 1985, Marsh discovered that feed from rendered dairy cows had infected a Wisconsin herd of mink with a TSE disease. According to John Stauber in PR Watch, "Marsh experimentally transferred the TSE from the mink into two Holstein steers through inoculation, then back from the cattle to the mink, showing that it was both transmissible and fatal to both species." But the two steers didn't go "mad" like their counterparts in England. Instead they simply dropped dead with little fanfare. The nature of the cattle deaths was similar to a common cow ailment called "Downer cow syndrome," which claims 20,000 cattle per year in Wisconsin alone.According to PR Watch, downer cows are typically rendered and fed back to living cows, creating a situation that could be furthering infection among the cattle population if Downer cow syndrome proves to be a TSE disease. But again, there is scant scientific evidence to support such a theory. Like Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the only way to test for TSEs is during an autopsy. And, as demonstrated, the adage of "being safe rather than sorry" is not oft repeated in the halls of corporate America.Indeed, it seems the only thing that would spur quick action by the government to restrict and regulate the practice that even the beef industry admits could be putting American consumers at risk would be for people to start dying. And by that time, it would likely be too late to help anyone already infected due again to the long latency period of the disease.Even normally stoic scientists who refrain from allowing a hint of personal opinion to taint their evaluations have expressed horror at the way the governments of both the U.S. and Great Britain have handled this potential health threat.Concludes Dr. Neilson in his BSE fact sheet: "British beef may or may not carry the risk of BSE. ... But if, at any stage, a parent dies of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease leaving children, or watches a child die of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease where will that parent place the blame? On themselves, on government advisors or on the food industry? ... (T)his is a question of policy, not science!"And even more telling is U.S. medical official Paul Brown's somber coda, as quoted in PR Watch: "A great deal of work remains to be done ... None of it will be of any help to those who may have been exposed to the infectious agent. ... Nor will it remedy the possible failure of the scientific pundits (myself included) to foresee a potential medical catastrophe."