Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Mad Cow Disease - Back or Never Gone? New Case Discovered In California...

I had really been hoping to post this last week, when the story was fresh but I’ve been a bit busy of late. I know this article is a tad long, but it is really, really important information, so I hope you do read it. At the very least please go to the links I’ve provided. Staying informed is always vitally important.

Mad Cow Disease - These three words inspire fear in the hearts of many, and indifference in the minds of others. Mad Cow Disease - or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) - however  is no recent phenomenon, nor is it - as many would like to believe - simply an epidemic of the past. Nor Is it an epidemic limited to the boundaries of only one country or even one continent despite what the ‘powers that be’ would have us believe. No, Mad Cow Disease is alive and well, and possibly living in a burger near you. It is there lurking amongst the shadows, ever omnipresent throughout the cattle industry and wherever ruminants are sold. The question, in my opinion, should not be “Is mad cow a threat?” but rather “Will they tells us when it is?”

If you grew up in the 80's or early 90's as I did then the imposing threat of mad cow should be all to familiar to you. Perhaps you recall the massive outbreak of BSE that started in Britain in the 1980's and completely decimated their cattle herds. Perhaps you recall the hundreds of human deaths from Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD) that occurred as a result of the consumption of BSE infected meat. You may even recall the famous  20 million dollar lawsuit filed by the Cattleman’s Beef Association against Oprah Winfrey. After a former cattle rancher named Howard Lyman appeared on her show in the mid-90's explaining that the same livestock-feeding practices responsible for the BSE outbreak in Britain were also being practiced in the United States. Upon hearing this she declared, “It has just stopped me cold from eating another burger.” You may remember the bans on importing British beef and that your mother suddenly started serving up a lot more chicken for dinner.

But why, you may be asking yourself, am I talking about this today? Because as I said in the opening paragraph BSE is alive and well not only in some distant place you may never have been to and may never go, but right here, today, on U.S. soil. In case you haven’t been following the news of late the USDA confirmed last week that a case of Mad Cow (BSE) was found in a California dairy cow. Considering that virtually all ‘spent’ dairy cows in the U.S.  are eventually ground up and made into hamburger meat, this news has naturally caused some alarm. Of course meat industry officials have been quick to point to the rarity of BSE in the U.S., and while it’s true that there have only been 4 official cases confirmed and reported in the U.S. since 2003, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there hasn’t been more. You see 34 million cattle are slaughtered for human consumption in the U.S. each year, and out of those only 40 thousand animals are tested for BSE. That equals out to be only 1 in every 1000. John Robbins makes a good point when he asks “If we tested 80 thousand would we find 2 cases? If we tested them all would we find 1000?”  You have to ask yourself if you think testing 1 in every 1000 animals is effective or adequate. If you were playing the lottery would you take 1 in 1000 odds? I wouldn’t. Add to that the startling fact that 1 cow can ultimately end up in numerous burgers. How many burgers exactly? No one knows. If even one BSE infected cow makes it past this inadequate testing system and enters the food chain it has the potential to cause a disaster of untold magnitude.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the dairy cow in question was discovered at a transfer facility near Hanford. The cow had died on one of the regions hundreds of dairies, and had arrived at the facility on a truck full of other dead cows. Though the cow in question had shown none of the symptoms of BSE - unsteadiness, un-coordination, drastic changes in behavior, or low milk production - it was nevertheless selected for the testing process due to it’s 30 month age. Industry officials claim this is an isolated incident, and point to the fact that the cow never entered the food chain as evidence of the public’s safety, but bigger questions continue to loom. Where did the cow come from? And how did the cow become infected? Until those questions can be answered with absolute certainty we can not really be sure if this is indeed an isolated case. BSE doesn’t just spring up inside of a cow out of nowhere, it isn’t a natural process that occurs as a cow ages, the infection has to come from somewhere or something, so I am of the opinion that where there is one case, there are more. The fact that other cases have not yet been found, only strengthens my opinion that the testing system in place is inadequate. Of course these questions could be answered if the U.S. had a mandatary identification system that tracked animals from birth to the slaughterhouse. Such a system would be able to identify without a doubt where the cow was born, and then the other cows on that farm could be tested for possible BSE contamination. Unfortunately the U.S. is one of the only beef-producing countries in the world that does not have a mandatary identification system put in place to track it’s food animals. Even third world countries such as Botswana have such a system in place. Though there have been attempts in the past to instill such a system nationwide, they have all been obstructed by various segments within the cattle industry. Which leads me to wonder what they have to hide?

Howard Lyman wrote in his book “Mad Cowboy” that cattle ranchers across the nation are all too familiar with occurrences of mysterious cow deaths. He writes that you may go to bed one night with all your cows looking normal and healthy and wake up the next morning to find that one has died from unknown causes during the night. He writes that while these cows show no outward signs of BSE infection, and no one ever says aloud that these deaths are in fact BSE related, ranchers can’t help the suspicion from entering their minds. With the numbers of ‘downed cows’ on the rise and only 1 in every 1000 animals being tested, this is a somewhat unsettling revelation.

An outward display of symptoms is one of the things Industry officials point to in order to reassure the public. They say cows displaying odd behavior would be immediately removed from the human food chain and tested, but what of the cows that do not display symptoms? As this dairy cow did not. BSE is not a suddenly striking disease. It comes on gradually, and has a long incubation period relative to the natural life span of the species in question. A small animal like a mouse ora  rat may display symptoms in a matter of months, a cat or dog maybe a year. A cow doesn’t typically display symptoms until the age of 5, and the incubation period in humans can be anything from 10-40 years. However no cow slaughtered for human consumption is ever aloud to live out it’s natural life span, animals in the beef industry barely make it to 3, and are routinely slaughtered between 18-24 months of age. Dairy cows typically live longer, making detection of BSE in them easier, but if a cow can be infected with BSE at the age of two, and not show any symptoms at the time of slaughter how would we ever know of the infection when only 1 in 1000 animals is tested? If the animal is not considered high-risk why would it ever need be tested? This is what worries me. More worrying still is that an infected cow can transmit BSE to her baby . If these animals aren’t tracked, which they are not in the U.S. how would we ever find the offspring of a cow who was later discovered to have BSE? How would we ever find out whether or not the offspring from that infected cow ever contracted BSE from it’s mother? We couldn’t. In fact we still haven’t been able to locate all of the British cows that were imported into the U.S. for breeding purposes before the 1987 ban. There was a massive effort to track down and destroy all of those cows and their offspring but without an identification system finding each and every one proved impossible.

I’m sorry, but the margin for error is just too large, and I have a very hard time swallowing the assurances made by those who have the most to gain from our continued beef consumption.

And I am not alone in my concern. Last week two major South Korean grocery retailers pulled all U.S. beef from their shelves. South Korea is the 4th largest importer of U.S. beef, but the Korean public aren’t buying the meat industry assurances either. Indonesia also placed an immediate ban on all U.S. beef imports.

Despite the meat industry’s assurances that this particular dairy cow didn’t make it into the food chain there is still a lot to be concerned about when it comes to BSE. According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine “The conditions that led to the emergence of BSE in Britain have also been present in the United States. Although some changes have been made, many U.S. livestock rendering and feeding practices are similar to those that were present in Britain at the onset of the BSE epidemic.” Meaning it’s definitely possible that more cases of BSE are going undetected in the United States.  For example though the FDA placed a ban on feeding most mammalian remnants to ruminants in 1997, a 2001 FDA report showed that of 180 renderers, 16% lacked warning labels on feeds designed to differentiate those intended for rudiments from those intended for nonruminants. Also 28% of renderers had no system set in place to prevent the mixing of these feeds. There is also no restriction on the use of blood, and blood products, gelatin, milk and milk products in feeds, through which BSE prions may be transmitted. (Though there is not yet any evidence to suggest that BSE prions can be transmitted to humans through drinking the milk of cows infected with BSE, there is some suggestion that BSE prions can be transmitted to other animals through the milk of BSE infected animals) There are also no limits on nonruminant use in feeds. Meaning animals such as pigs and horses can and are routinely fed to cows as part of their feed. Unfortunately since BSE prions are very difficult to destroy if the remnants of a BSE infected cow are fed to a pig, and that pig is then in turn fed to another cow, that cow may become infected with BSE. Similarly ruminant remnants can be fed to poultry and poultry feces are routinely used in cattle feed. Not very reassuring huh?

More data from the National Veterinary Science Laboratories BSE Surveillance program from 1990-2000 show that out of 900 million cattle slaughtered only 11,954 brains were examined for BSE. That amounts to only 1 in every 75 thousand. Does 1 in 75 thousand seem like an appropriate number to you? How would you like those odds?

Scarier still is the fact that BSE is not limited to just Britain nor the United States. According the the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine BSE has been found in native cattle in France, Switzerland, Northern Ireland, The Republic of Ireland, The Channel Isles, the Isle of Man, Spain, Germany, Japan, Russia, Denmark, Oman, The Falkland Islands and Canada.  Also according to the PCRM at least 100, 000 cattle who’s BSE status is unknown have been shipped from the UK to other countries. Most of those animals remain unaccounted for.

Mad Cow disease is no joke, and neither is it’s human variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. (vCJD) Like BSE in cows, vCJD in humans robs an individual of their mental faculties, and muscle coordination. There is no treatment for the disease and It eventually leads to coma and death. It is always fatal. The disease essentially eats away at the brain until the infected individual can no longer function. It’s a gruesome disease resulting from contact with the prions in tissues of cattle infected with BSE. Sadly only a minuscule amount of infected tissue is required in order to transmit the disease. These prions concentrate mostly in the brain and spinal tissue, but have also been found in blood and muscle tissue according to the PCRM.  These prions are also very difficult to destroy even by disinfectant, chemical or heating methods. In fact a temperature of 134'C or 273'F does not reduce their ability to infect an animal or individual.

Worse still is that the symptoms of vCJD infection are very similar to that of dementia, or Alzheimer’s, so many people with vCJD are mis-diagnosed as such, making the disease in humans very hard to track. Since it is very hard to determine the difference between vCJD and Alzheimer’s in a living patient, and since most people who die from neurological illness are never autopsied their brains are never examined. Meaning we may never know exactly how many people have or have had vCJD. According to the PCRM death certificates from 1979-1988 show that 4,751 people died of vCJD in the United States.

Interestingly a 1989 study conducted at the University of Pittsburgh found that when 54 patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia were autopsied after death 3 of them (5%) were actually found to have vCJD.  Another study from 1989 conducted at Yale University discovered that out of 46 people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s 6 (13%) were actually found to have vCJD upon being autopsied. Since there are over 2 million cases of Alzheimer’s in the United States, if even a small percentage of them turned out to be vCJD, we could be faced a vCJD epidemic. Now that’s a scary thought.

So while the meat industry and the USDA continue to assure us that we are safe from this latest incidence of Mad Cow, one can’t help but feel a little unsafe when it comes to the disease on a greater scale. With inadequate testing, shady feeding practices, and an apparent unwillingness by the industry to put in place a national animal identification system, one can’t help but feel a lack of confidence not only in the integrity of the industry itself but also in the products they’re pushing. It’s just one more reason I’m glad to be a vegan. Of course with such a long incubation period there’s no telling whom among us might develop BSE related vCJD. Every time I think about the beef I ate growing up in Canada, and living in the United States, as well as the burger I ate here and there over in Ireland I feel a little sick. However I can at least feel confident in the fact that I am no longer potentially exposing myself to undetected BSE. My made from scratch veggie burgers are safe, as is the rest of the food I prepare on a daily basis. For that I am grateful.

For more information on Mad Cow disease I highly recommend Howard Lyman’s “Mad Cowboy” as well as John Robbins “Food Revolution” the latter is not exclusively about BSE but it is a wonderful book with a section devoted to the disease.

The Huffington Post
The L.A. Times
John Robbins Article for The Huffington Post
Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine


  1. Wow! Just another reason for us to think about going meat free hey! S.T.

  2. Such a scary disease. It blows my mind how flimsy the security is in the food supply in the U.S. (& the world, in general) More people should realize just how exposed they are to this disease. So glad I'm not risking that any more!