Food

The Deadly Disease in Meat That Health Officials Are Ignoring

Health officials are too protective of the meat industry.

When the first U.S. mad cow was found in late 2003, 98 percent of U.S. beef exports evaporated overnight. There was such national revulsion to cow "cannibalism" when described in the late 1990s as the presumed cause of the fatal disease, Oprah Winfrey said she would never eat a hamburger again and was promptly sued by Texas cattle producers. They lost.

But this month a fourth U.S. death from the human version of mad cow, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), in Texas barely made the news. Neither did therecall of 4,000 pounds of "organic" beef possibly contaminated with mad cow (bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE) shipped to Whole Foods and two restaurants, in New York and Kansas City, Mo. The restaurant meat was eaten before the recall, speculated one news source.

What has changed? Health officials, overtly protecting the meat industry, have succeeded in spinning the disease so it is now considered something that "just happens" rather than a grave breakdown of our agricultural system.

Mad cow and CJD are fatal transmissible spongiform encephalopathies thought to be caused by infectious particles called prions. Though prions are not technically “alive” because they lack a nucleus, they manage to reproduce and are almost impossible to “kill.” They are not inactivated by cooking, heat, autoclaves, ammonia, bleach, hydrogen peroxide, alcohol, phenol, lye, formaldehyde or radiation and they remain in the soil for years. Yet the two government centers charged with safeguarding us from mad cow and CJD are embarrassingly incompetent.

Neurologist Ron Bailey says he was told by the National Prion Disease Pathology Surveillance Center (NPDPSC) in Cleveland that tissue samples from his patient -- 49-year-old Patrick Hicks -- could not be tested to see if he had sporadic CJD (not caused by meat) or vCJD because the tissue samples were not kept properly as they were obtained from 1-800-Autopsy. Prion-containing waste was apparently dumped into the city sewage system, charged workers at the National Animal Disease Center in Ames, Iowa.

And there are other reasons to doubt government safeguards. When a woman was hospitalized in Amarillo in 2008 with possible vCJD, causing beef futures markets to plummet at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Ted McCollum, with the Amarillo office of Texas AgriLife Extension, reassured the public that the woman's case was sporadic CJD, not from beef, before tests were even done.

In accounting for the first U.S. mad cow, found in Washington state in 2003, the government said, “By December 27, 2003, FDA had located all potentially infectious product rendered from the BSE-positive cow in Washington State. This product was disposed of in a landfill in accordance with Federal, State and local regulations” But the Los Angeles Times reported that despite “a voluntary recall aimed at recovering all 10,000 pounds of beef slaughtered at the plant the day the Washington state cow was killed, some meat, which could have contained the Washington cow, was sold to restaurants in several Northern California counties.” The San Francisco Chronicle reported that 11 restaurants and a food market purchased soup bones from "the suspect lot" in Alameda and Santa Clara counties and that their identities were being withheld.

And there was more beef industry protectionism. For seven months, the government hid the fact of a second mad cow, found in Texas, until an inspector general went over the secretary of agriculture's head and conducted more definitive tests. No food warnings were issued. When the government finally did investigate the source of disease in the Texas cow and a subsequent Alabama cow found in 2006, it found no source. And even though the Texas and Alabama ranches exposed the public to one of the worst terminal diseases that exists, their identities were protected and they allowed them to resume operations in one month.

And there is more bad science. The meat recently recalled from Missouri-based Fruitland American Meat was considered at risk because it came from animals over 30 months old, but scientists have found the disease in cattle younger than that age. While the government and beef industry say that only some parts of an animal carry prions (brain, eyeballs, spinal cord, spleen, lymph nodes etc.) scientific articles have found them in muscle meat and blood.

When it comes to mad cow scares, Texas is ground zero. In 2001, two years before the Washington state mad cow, herds near Amarillo were quarantined for possibly eating banned animal meal that contained the disease. But this month, like in 2008 when there was anotherfatal vCJD case, Texas officials say the victim had contracted the disease abroad not from local beef which is, of course, pure speculation. Nor is a quick look at CJD cases in Texas between 2000 and 2013 comforting.

A Texas Department of State Health Services map shows two counties with 22 cases of CJD each and counties with 12, 8 and 7 cases. If the cases of CJD are not caused by animals, they would not occur in clusters nor would there be so many since the non-animal disease only occurs in one in a million people.

When mad cow first hit the U.S. in 2003, the U.S.' $3 billion a year beef export business  evaporated. Mexico, Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, South Korea, and ninety other countries refused U.S. beef. The only reason the European Union didn’t ban U.S. beef was because it had already banned it for its high use of growth hormones. So it is no surprise government officials and the beef industry are seeking harm reduction when new mad cows are found. Is this why outbreaks of mad cow disease are suddenly termed "atypical" and "random"?

Two years ago when a fourth mad cow in the U.S. was found, it was said to suffer from "atypical" mad cow disease. It was “just a random mutation that can happen every once in a great while in an animal” and can "go on in nature all the time,” reassured Bruce Akey, director of the New York State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at Cornell University.

Of course "atypical" mad cow disease frees the government and beef industry from  recalls, searches for contaminated feed (and herd mates and offspring) and depleted international and domestic markets. But is it true? And does the government have a good track record with mad cow?

Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter and the author of "Born With a Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp the Public Health (Random House)."

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