Mad About Beef
by Marc Lappé, Ph.D and Britt Bailey (1996)
U.S. government is going to extraordinary lengths to downplay
the likelihood that the epidemic of "mad cow disease"
(BSE) currently sweeping the European Continent can happen here.
On April 12, the USDA created a new "home page" for
BSE on its APHIS website expressly designed to mitigate American
concerns. In answers to hypothetical questions, the USDA reports
that BSE is not in America, and even if it were, transmission
to humans is virtually impossible. Both of these assertions
are suspect. At least 300,000 cattle have been reported to die
from a related disorder, called "downer's disease",
and on April 8, 1996, a 53 year old Oregon man came down with
a disease remarkably similar to those affecting British patients.
In downgrading the risk of BSE to Americans, the USDA ignores
other data that should give us all pause: BSE is not the first
disease that has jumped species lines from bovines to humans.
Brucellosis, a serious systemic infection; E. coli 0157:H7 and
salmonella, both cause potential fatal intestinal diarrheas;
bovine tuberculosis; and possibly lymphoma have all been documented
to transfer from beef or dairy cattle to humans. BSE is potentially
the most serious transgressor of all.
(for Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) is a chronic neurodegenerative
disease which has affected over 160,000 cattle in Britain, with
isolated outbreaks in eleven other countries by 1995. The root
causes of the epidemic of BSE may never be fully understood.
One disturbing element is now clear: feeding traditional herbivores
meat byproducts, as British (and American) dairymen allegedly
did in the mid-1980's, is courting disaster. British cattle
were fed offal and other "protein" supplements from
sheep carrying a neurodegenerative disease known as scrapie.
As a result, there are 155,600 head of cattle in almost 33,000
herds diagnosed with BSE in Great Britain.
is strong evidence to suggest this transpecies transmission
is not limited to sheep and cattle. BSE-like disease has appeared
in mink, cats, antelopes, and ostriches fed infected animal
byproducts. A growing consensus among veterinarians and public
health authorities in Great Britain is that cattle to human
transference of BSE can occur. At least 13 cases of a human
variant of BSE have been reported in Europe, three of them in
people who were in direct contact with BSE infected cattle.
The human variant of "mad cow disease" appears to
be related to the rare (1 in a million persons/year) neurodegenerative
condition known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
we are protected from acquiring food-borne disease on at least
two levels: the USDA "certifies", by the inspection
seal, that the meat we eat is void of pathogens, and any pathogens
remaining in the meat that gets through this screening is rendered
harmless by cooking. The newest evidence in the case of potentially
BSE infected meat, shows that we are terribly vulnerable. A
USDA inspection of a beef carcass cannot pick up subtle clues
of neurodegeneration in the original life animal. No test exists
for the suspected agent of BSE, a proteinaceous particle known
as a prion. And prions themselves are unprecedented infectious
agents that resist destruction by standard means of disinfection,
including heat or UV radiation. Nor are we sufficiently armed
to detect new BSE in either cattle or people. The surveillance
system the USDA uses to monitor potential BSE cases only picks
up overtly sick BSE infected cattle.
deficiencies are particularly disturbing in light of the liklihood
that a Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease has a latency period of 10
to 50 years. In spite of assurances to the contrary, the existence
of another transmissible spongiform encephalopathy already exists
in U.S. cattle in the form of "downer cow syndrome".
Will it prove transmissable?
faulty screening system is made more so by inadequate surveillance
of meat byproducts such as ruminant proteins, fertilizers, and
cosmetics. Prior to 1986, the U.S. imported 14 tons of ruminant
protein for animal feed. Given the British experience, it is
likely that some protein sources carried the BSE agent. Today,
the USDA asserts that it has restricted the importation of live
ruminants from countries where BSE is known to exist. But potentially
highly infectious products, e.g., bone meal, offal, and blood
meal, derived from ruminants are still being imported under
special permits for use in cosmetics. And up until March of
1996, the USDA permitted the feeding of ruminant derived meat
and bone meal to cattle. As a result, BSE could be incubating
in hundreds of thousands of cattle.
the British government accepted a report from a prestigious
advisory committee that concluded that at least 10 cases of
human neurodegenerative disease were BSE related. This advisory
heralds the prospect of a greater outbreak. BSE is likely to
remain a huge problem in Europe and elsewhere around the world
as 450,000 calves are exported for the European veal trade.
Statistical analysis shows that at least 72,000 of these exported
calves could be carrying BSE while appearing to be well.
are we suddenly vulnerable to new infectious diseases from cattle?
Human health risks from animal rearing practices have existed
since we domesticated animals. In 1972, the FDA issued the Swann
Report, a policy statement on feeding antibiotics to animals.
The Swann commission concluded that feeding animal feed supplements
greatly increases the risk of humans getting antibiotic-resistant
bacteria. As proof of this likelihood, in August of 1976 Salmonella
infected calves at a dairy farm passed their infection to the
farmer, his pregnant daughter, and ultimately her child. But
the FDA still permits valuable antibiotics like fluoroquinolone
in hog feed. The mistaken rationale for the use of antibiotics
in animal feed drives our continuing flirtation with evolutionary
disaster. What happens to animals can and does happen to people.
have gotten on a cycle of increasing dependence on livestock
rearing practices that create the seeds of contagion.. The use
of antibiotics allows for more animals to be raised within smaller
confines. Protein supplements allow for greater efficiencies
in beef and dairy production. Overuse of antibiotics in hospitals
and homes decrease resistance in humans and cattle to various
antibiotic resistant pathogens.
is the answer? Today 23 million cattle are processed through
America's 8,500 feedlots. 1.6 million of these animals are known
to get sick. At least 241,500 die, mostly from infectious diarrheal
disease. Some 230 feedlots have an average of 58,700 head per
lot, setting the stage for outbreaks of infectious disease.
This mode of livestock promotion greatly increases the chance
for infectious outbreaks in cattle. The message of BSE is that
in neglecting the welfare of out livestock, we may be sowing
the seeds of our own destruction.
is time to re-evaluate how we raise our cattle. If livestock
are going to continue to be in the human diet, conditions must
change. Is there an alternative to rearing dense crowded herds
and feedlots where growth is promoted by the concentrated, common
feed supplements, the conditions that encourage animal to animal
spread of any infectious agent?
we do not yet know how stress, antibiotics, hormones, and overcrowding
are specifically linked to the occurrence of BSE, we do know
these conditions foment disease. Does this mean giving up beef
or chicken entirely to assure safety? Not necessarily. Cattle
raised on open ranges and so-called "free range" chickens
may be safer substitutes. Free range fed cattle will not produce
the amounts of beef and dairy products that steroid fed calves
will, but what will be produced will likely be healthier to
eat. Thousands of sick feedlot cattle will not need to be incinerated-
a process that is unlikely to destroy the BSE pathogen. The
free-range alternative also puts cattle back into their evolutionary
niche as herbivores, and out of harms way from protein supplement
this point in time, the U.S. beef industry stands adamantly
against the free range alternative and denies BSE poses any
risks. But, our beef producers have the most to lose by denying
the BSE problem exists. Such denial will only lead to what we
are witnessing in Britain, where millions of pounds are being
expended in incineration costs and an entire industry is collapsing
at the cost of billions of pounds. It may be wiser to change
the methods of raising cattle now. Doing so will only build
trust in an industry that is quickly losing merit. Yes, the
cattle will be "smaller" and will not produce the
dairy and beef amounts that are artificially being produced
today. A smaller cow for a smaller price. In the meantime, the
safest way for humans to stay clear of this disease may be to
abstain from including animal and their byproducts in our diets
for Ethics and Toxics, P.O. Box 673, Gualala, CA 95445