Last fall, The Wall Street Journal published a horrifying article on its front page. Under the headline THE U.S. MAY FACE MAD-COW EXPOSURE DESPITE ASSURANCES FROM GOVERNMENT, staff writer Steve Stecklow reported that the domestic cattle herd is far from safe, and that the government is doing little to test either cattle or people for signs of illness.
Yet despite Stecklow's meticulously detailed findings and the story's prominent placement in one of our most respected newspapers, it pretty much disappeared without a trace. To the extent that any attention has been paid to mad-cow disease during the past month, it was to plug a reassuring report by the Center for Risk Analysis, at the Harvard School of Public Health, that there is vanishingly little likelihood here of a British-style outbreak of mad cow.
What a difference a year makes. In late 2000 and early 2001, network television newscasts and national newsmagazines were filled with terrifying stories about what had happened in Europe, especially in Britain. Cattle in increasing numbers were coming down with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), a little-understood disease that kills by punching the brain full of tiny holes.
Worse -- much worse -- was the likelihood that a similar fatal brain disease affecting humans was spreading through the consumption of contaminated beef. The illness was called a "new variant" of a rare condition named Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and thus became known, for short, as nvCJD. More than 100 people, nearly all of them from Britain, have died of nvCJD over the past five years.
For the US media, the story was made to order, featuring as it did video of wild-eyed, staggering cows, heaps of burning animal carcasses, distraught farmers, and in a few cases footage of twentysomething nvCJD victims trembling through the final stages of their awful disease. "I hate to be blunt, but there was a strong visual to go with it," says Boston University communications professor Tobe Berkovitz. "A typical science story doesn't get much play, because you need a visual to be aired ad infinitum or ad nauseam to make it a television news story. And video of shaking, crumbling cows gives you a visual."
There was, though, a problem with sustaining interest in mad-cow disease. First, there was the inconvenient fact that not a single case of BSE or nvCJD had ever been found in the US. Second, federal officials assured the public that steps taken several years earlier -- banning the importation of beef from Britain, and outlawing the use of beef byproducts in animal feed, thought to be the principal means by which BSE is spread -- would prevent an outbreak from ever occurring here. By spring, few mad-cow stories were making their way onto the front pages or the network newscasts, as the media turned their attention to more characteristic obsessions. No, it hasn't disappeared completely -- witness a recent episode of The West Wing in which the Bartlet administration debates how best to spin an outbreak of mad cow. But in terms of public consciousness, this is one potential crisis that has faded far into the background.
"There was a period when mad-cow disease was a very telegenic story in an ugly and disturbing sort of way," says Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television. But then, he notes, "the summer of Gary occurred, and all of a sudden we had all of that time being spent in the cable and broadcast media on Gary Condit and Chandra Levy." Finally, Thompson observes, "what Gary Condit did to mad cow and some other stories, September 11 did to Gary Condit."
But if mad-cow disease is, understandably, not as pressing an issue as the hunt for Osama bin Laden, it remains, as the Wall Street Journal article suggests, an important, ongoing story. If mad cow -- and, more crucially, nvCJD -- breaks out into the US population at some point during the next several years, the media's chronically short attention span in covering this complicated scientific and medical story will surely stand out as one of their principal failures of 2001.
MAD-COW DISEASE, "classic" (that is, non-nv) CJD, and a similar illness in sheep called scrapie are all known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, or TSEs. All of them occur naturally, and scientists believe that mammals, humans included, contract TSEs at the rate of one per million in population. Although the exact cause of TSEs is poorly understood, it is thought by many scientists to be related to the presence of "prions" -- proteins that somehow take on a different and deadly shape, and that force other proteins to follow their lead. This process has been compared to "ice-nine," the substance in Kurt Vonnegut's 1963 novel Cat's Cradle that destroys the earth by changing all the water so that it turns solid at room temperature.
Among the best and most thorough treatments of mad-cow disease was an article written for the Atlantic Monthly in 1998 by science journalist Ellen Ruppel Shell. She argues that if BSE arises in cattle naturally at the rate of one in a million, then there would be 100 with BSE among the nation's 100 million head of cattle at any given time. And if any of those cattle somehow entered the food chain -- say, in high-protein animal feed that is later fed back to cattle -- then BSE can spread far beyond those 100 head. Humans are exposed by eating contaminated beef -- a danger heightened by such practices as slaughtering cattle with pressure guns, which blast highly infectious brain and spinal tissue into the edible parts of the animal carcass.
Shell focuses especially heavily on animal-rendering plants, "a series of altogether unsavory places where dead cats and dogs, road kill, the occasional circus animal, and the diseased carcasses of farm animals are mixed into a ghastly, belching stew." Yum. Among the products made by these plants is the aforementioned high-protein animal feed, which turns cows into cannibals by feeding them byproducts of other cows -- including, potentially, cows with BSE. Complicating this considerably is the fact that other animals dumped into the stew may also have TSEs -- especially road kill such as elk and deer, which, in the Western United States, are experiencing an epidemic of a TSE known as chronic wasting disease. Finally, to save on energy costs, rendering plants in recent decades have perfected a system of low-temperature cooking. The problem is that sustained exposure to high temperatures is absolutely essential for killing TSEs.
But if feeding cows to cows is now illegal, well, why should we worry? As it turns out, it's not nearly that simple. It is still perfectly legal to feed cow byproducts to pigs and chickens, which are not thought to harbor TSEs. And it's perfectly legal to toss those same pigs and chickens into the rending vats to manufacture feed that can then be fed back to cows. Also, as the Journal article reports, 13 percent of rending plants do not comply with the new regulations against putting beef byproducts into feed intended for cows -- and the federal government itself admits that "scores of shipments of animal byproducts for use in animal feed came into the U.S. in recent years from countries that now have mad-cow disease in their cattle herds, a potentially serious source of contamination."
There is still, though, the simple fact that no cases of BSE or nvCJD have ever been diagnosed in the US. Right? Well, maybe. Some mad-cow specialists say the problem is that the United States has not been inspecting cattle in anywhere near the numbers or with the rigor that British and European authorities now do, meaning that cases of BSE could be slipping by. As for the lack of any human cases, there is at least some reason to believe that there are, in fact, tens of thousands of cases -- many of them sitting right in front of us when we visit the nursing home.
In the 1990s, researchers at Yale University and the University of Pittsburgh studied autopsy results of people who had died of Alzheimer's disease. Although their sample sizes were small, the results were chilling: somewhere between eight and 13 percent were found to have actually had CJD rather than Alzheimer's. That's far more than the 250 or so cases that would be statistically expected of "classic," or naturally occurring, CJD, meaning that a more likely explanation would be the consumption of contaminated meat.
That would also fit with the decades-long incubation period for CJD and nvCJD. According to the Web site of the Alzheimer's Association, approximately four million Americans have Alzheimer's -- about 10 percent of those who are 65 or older, and nearly half of those who are 85 or older. As Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber wrote in their book Mad Cow U.S.A.: Could the Nightmare Happen Here? (Common Courage, 1997), "If the true number of CJD cases in the United States turns out to be 40,000 instead of 250, the implications for human health would be severe. It could mean that a deadly infectious dementia akin to Britain's problem has already entered the U.S. population. And since CJD has an invisible latency period of up to 40 years in humans, 40,000 cases could be just the beginning of something much larger." (A downloadable version of Mad Cow U.S.A. is available for free on the Web site of the Center for Democracy and Technology.)
Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, whose Web site contains an extensive archive of mad-cow information, says that at a minimum the federal government should launch a program of quick, inexpensive tests of both cattle and Alzheimer's-disease patients to determine whether we may have a hidden mad-cow crisis that warrants further study and action.
"It's not a question of 'Do we have mad cow in this country?' Of course we do," says Cummins. "Every livestock-grazing country in the world has always had it at low levels. The question is 'How much do we have, and how quickly is it magnifying?'"
The conventional wisdom is that we have little to fear from mad-cow disease, and of course the conventional wisdom may be right. Lloyd deMause, editor of the Journal of Psychohistory, says it's not unusual for societies to develop a cultural fear of poisoning at the end of a long period of prosperity -- it's a natural reaction to feelings of guilt over having experienced such good fortune. Seen in this light, last year's media obsession with mad-cow disease -- an illness never detected in this country -- is similar to panicky news stories over West Nile virus, a rare, rather mild, flu-like illness, and this fall's outburst of fear over anthrax, which, after all, killed just a tiny handful of people.
"Why poison? This is pre-verbal," deMause says. "It goes way back to when you were still drinking milk from the mommy's breast or from the bottle." (It's this same dark, guilt-ridden fear of the forces around us, deMause says, that explains what he considers to be our overreaction to the terrorist attacks of September 11. "I'd be glad to shoot bin Laden in the cross hairs myself. I'm not a pacifist," he says. "But it seems to me that we're going to go back and finish the job in Iraq and do all sorts of other horrible things that we should not do.")
But even if fear of mad-cow disease somehow taps into our more primal cultural obsessions, there is the fact of mad-cow disease that must still be contended with. And the fact is that the seeming dearth of mad-cow cases in this country may be the entirely predictable result of our failure to look.
Michael Greger, a Jamaica Plain physician who is a nationally recognized expert on mad-cow disease (he's listed in the acknowledgments of Mad Cow U.S.A.), blasts the US Department of Agriculture for what he calls a "'don't look, don't find' program of surveillance," adding: "Every week in Europe they test 10 times as many cattle than we have tested in a decade. Europe has tested five million at this point. If the US had as high an incidence as Europe, the current USDA testing program would not detect it. It is irresponsible to assert that we have no mad-cow disease in the United States when we simply haven't looked hard enough to tell."
As for what the future holds, Greger replies that "no one knows what the risk of eating American beef is. And by the time we know for sure, it may be too late. I counsel my patients to err on the side of caution and stop eating beef. Better safe than sorry."
For obvious reasons, mad-cow disease remains a big story in Britain. Last September, London's Guardian newspaper published a harrowing two-part series on the small village of Queniborough, where five young adults had died of nvCJD over a period of several years. The reporter, Kevin Toolis, noted that all the victims may have gotten sick because of such antiquated butchering practices as mixing brains and meat. His description of the long, agonizing death of Stacey Robinson was particularly horrifying.
"The howling went on for five months, night and day, from the autumn of 1997 to the spring of 1998, a low, growling, demonic yowl that escaped her lips as if it came from deep within the earth; the cry of the damned," Toolis wrote. "It could be heard halfway along the ward in Leicester's Royal Infirmary as Stacey plunged into madness. She soon lost the power to walk, to eat, to clean herself, to use the bathroom. She turned aggressive, kicking, swearing and assaulting her nurses. She battered her forearm against the bed until it was black and blue. She held her hand under a scalding tap and felt no pain. In the end, the doctors turned her ordinary city hospital room into a padded cell."
Mad-cow disease could be much ado about nothing; it could also turn out to be a scourge for the ages. To date, only 100 or so people in Britain (and just a handful in other countries) have died of nvCJD, even though some 60 million may have been exposed to BSE-contaminated beef. But because of the decades-long latency period, those who have died so far may merely represent the bleeding edge. According to some estimates, the worst-case scenario is that some 100,000 Britons could die the way Stacey Robinson did.
Last winter, when mad-cow disease was all the rage, both Time and Newsweek ran big stories on it. CAN IT HAPPEN HERE? asked Time. CANNIBALS TO COWS: THE PATH OF A DEADLY DISEASE was Newsweek's lurid take. A search of the New York Times' Web site turns up 114 references to mad-cow disease during the first three months of 2001 -- but just 43 during the slow-news months of June, July, and August.
Three and a half months after September 11, the media are gradually returning to normal, however you want to define normal in a country scarred by terrorism and war. The New York Observer last week predicted that the Times may cease publication of "A Nation Challenged," its special section on the war against terrorism, sometime after the New Year. How long will it be before Geraldo, back from misrepresenting his whereabouts in Afghanistan, treats his new viewers on the Fox News Channel to a special on JonBenét Ramsey?
The media have distinguished themselves this year, proving that -- despite a decade of corporate downsizing and a growing obsession with celebrity and scandal -- they can still provide sustained, in-depth coverage of vitally important news. If the reinvigorated media are looking for other important stories to cover in 2002, they should take another, longer look at mad-cow disease. They had the chance in 2001, and they walked away. But discerning the extent of this threat to our food supply is surely as important as describing the threat from Al Qaeda.
Dan Kennedy is Media Editor at Boston Phoenix and can be reached at email@example.com