What's in the Beef?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) appears to be following in the footsteps of the British Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which, after years of downplaying the human health risks stemming from mad cow disease, saw the issue erupt into a public health crisis. The British government has now admitted that human consumption of meat from cattle infected with mad cow disease -- bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) -- was a probable cause of a recent outbreak of the human form of the disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). As a result, the British beef industry now faces financial ruin. British microbiologist Richard Lacey, whose track record at predicting the course of the fatal disease in the human population is now better than that of his government, maintains that CJD could reach epidemic proportions in the U.K. He has recently said, "We are now estimating that by the next century the typical number of CJD cases will run at between 5,000 and 500,000 a year." Prodded by this alarming prognosis, the USDA has decided to institute some long overdue regulatory reform. Yet questions remain. Has the department done too little too late? Is the department acting out of concern for public health, or is it protecting the affected industries from an outbreak of public concern? In 1991, the USDA prepared contingency plans dealing with the possibility that mad cow disease could rear its ugly head in the United States. The department, keenly aware that any battle would be fought in the court of public opinion, drew up a strategy paper titled "BSE Public Relations." That plan reads in part, "The mere perception that BSE might exist in the United States could have devastating effects on our domestic markets for beef and dairy." The plan, which was released under a Freedom of Information Act request from the Pure Food Campaign, cautions the department to "avoid public relations problems such as have occurred in the U.K." One such problem occurred when the British Ministry of Health committed the "strategic error" of initiating a registry for Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. As the plan points out: "This [registry] appeared to legitimize concern about a link between BSE and human health." The department seems to believe that what the public doesn't know can't hurt it. And to that end it appears to be doing all it can to avoid discovering scientific evidence that would contradict the government's official position, that BSE "does not exist" in the United States. To back up this claim, the Agriculture Department points to its own BSE surveillance program. As of December 1995, scientists had examined the brains of 2,660 cows that had exhibited signs of neurological disease and found no evidence of BSE. But Richard Marsh, a member of the government's Scrapie/BSE Consultants Group, maintains that this negative result proves little. According to Marsh, the department is examining the wrong cows and using the wrong diagnosis when it does so. For more than 10 years, Marsh has been trying to convince government officials that the United States is very much at risk for mad cow disease -- and that, indeed, a form of the malady may already be circulating through the U.S. cattle population. In the fall of 1985, before BSE was first discovered in British cattle, Marsh, a veterinary scientist at the University of Wisconsin, reported at the annual meeting of the U.S. Animal Health Association on an outbreak of transmissible mink encephalopathy, the mink form of BSE. The disease had wiped out a mink farm in Wisconsin, where the infected animals had been fed cows afflicted with "downer cow syndrome," which renders cows unable to get up once they have fallen down. Circumstantial evidence, in Marsh's view, indicated that a bovine form of scrapie -- the sheep nervous-system malady from which Britain's BSE epidemic apparently sprang -- was going undiagnosed. For the past four years, Marsh and other scientists have repeatedly expressed concern at Agriculture Department meetings that an undiagnosed form of BSE could account for some "downer cow" deaths. In 1992, veterinary researchers in Ames, Iowa, and Mission, Texas, discovered that cattle injected with brain matter from scrapie-infected American sheep developed BSE. However, the brains of these infected cattle did not exhibit the spongy holes found in the brains of their BSE-plagued British cousins. Further, bovines afflicted with this American strain of scrapie-induced BSE do not go mad, they simply collapse and die. And that is what happens to the 100,000 American cattle that now succumb to "downer cow syndrome" each year. Marsh feared that the widespread practice of feeding downed cows to other cattle in the form of rendered protein supplements could be fueling a BSE epidemic such as the one now gripping Britain. At least 14 percent of all rendered cattle in the United States -- including downer cows -- are consumed by other cows in the form of protein supplements. Government officials now appear to agree with Marsh on the potential danger of feeding cows to cows. On March 28, the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration announced that they would expedite the drafting of regulations that would prohibit the use of rendered ruminants as an animal feed supplement. And the U.S. livestock industry has said it will institute a voluntary ban until such regulations are on the books. In its public statement, the USDA said, "The measures announced today will provide an additional level of assurance that the United States remains free of BSE." The Agriculture Department has previously considered banning the practice of feeding cows to cows. According to a 1991 internal departmental report, "BSE Rendering Policy," such a ban was supported by those staff scientists who believe "that a spongiform encephalopathy agent is present in the U.S. cattle population." But the "disadvantage" of this proposal, according to the department, was that it "could pose major problems for the U.S. livestock, feed and rendering industries" -- industries that each year take in $60 billion, $20 billion and $1.7 billion, respectively. Marsh told In These Times that he was glad the government has now recognized the need for the ban. He also hopes the USDA will realize the need for "better surveillance." In 1992, at the June meeting of the Scrapie/BSE Consultants Group, Marsh and others asked the Agriculture Department to change the diagnostic guidelines of its BSE surveillance program. Their arguments again fell on deaf ears. The official minutes of that meeting state: "The consultant group and participants [including representatives from the National Milk Producers Federation, National Renderers Association, the American Sheep Industry Association and the National Cattlemen's Association] agreed that the current efforts are on target for the needs of the livestock and rendering industries ... and that changes in the research direction are not appropriate at this time." No representatives of consumer groups have ever participated in the consultants group meetings. In internal documents, however, the department admits to doubts its spokespersons have never voiced publicly. In 1991, one report warned that agriculture is "vulnerable to media scrutiny" regarding "the practice of feeding rendered ruminant products to ruminants and the risk to human health" stemming from the practice. Another USDA report issued the same year held that "the potential risk of amplification of the BSE agent" through feed concentrates "is much greater in the United States" than in Britain. And dairy cows are most at risk. They live longer than beef cattle, and hence have more time to develop the disease. Dairy cows also eat a diet loaded with feed concentrates made from rendered animal protein. Of the 11.6 billion pounds of hamburger consumed in the United States each year, 2.6 billion pounds comes from "retired" dairy cows. In a spate of official denials, industry and government spokesmen have dismissed all talk of a BSE threat in the United States -- a line of PR obligingly parroted by the media. For instance, New York Times reporter Lawrence Altman filed a piece on March 27 uncritically reporting the spin control of the USDA's BSE spokesman, Will Hueston. By Altman's account, the USDA has "carefully studied the sheep-to-cow transmission possibility but has been unable to verify it in the United States, either in theory or practice. Scrapie-infected tissue collected from sheep in this country has been injected into the brains of cattle without causing the damage typical of mad cow disease, suggesting the scrapie agent that infects American sheep may differ from that of British sheep. 'With all the work we have done in the United States so far, we have not been able to recreate a disease that fits the bovine spongiform encephalopathy picture,' Dr. Hueston said." Like all the department's previous public announcements on BSE, this one deliberately overlooked the body of research Marsh and others have assembled, in which government-sponsored scientists using American scrapie had "recreated" a different strain of BSE, which is just as deadly but exhibits properties that do not fit the formal definition of BSE. To its credit, the Agriculture Department has announced that in the wake of Britain's mad cow scare, it plans to "review" its "current policies and regulations concerning BSE." In Wisconsin, Marsh welcomed the announcement but says he hopes that the review is not an excuse to delay taking action. The department also has promised to expand its current BSE surveillance program. That's fine, says Marsh, as long as it accompanies the increased testing with a change in the diagnostic guidelines. He is also cheered by the USDA's decision to support further research into BSE -- a welcome reversal of previous department refusals to fund studies that would test Marsh's hypothesis. He hopes the commitment is sincere, yet he wonders: "Do the USDA and FDA feel any extra obligation with this being a potential human pathogen? Or are they going to give us the same song and dance?"


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