- Note - Though 36 million head are slaughtered a year,
the USDA has examined only 12,000 brains since 1990 - that's about 1200
cattle checked out of 36 million annually. Former cattle rancher turned
vegan, Howard Lyman, has no doubt Mad Cow has been here for years...the
USDA and the beef industry just aren't looking very hard to find it. -ed
- Moo Over, Mad Cow Is Coming
- "Not a single case of mad cow" has been the
proud mantra of the U.S. beef industry since the disease was discovered
in Britain 15 years ago.
- Not finding a case, though, has been largely a function
of not looking especially hard. Since last fall, events have forced European
countries to start examining every slaughtered cow over a certain age,
a big change from checking for disease only if a wobbly beast ended up
on the evening news. It turns out mad cow gets around.
- The French, Germans and Swiss have found 100-plus cases
so far. Italy just discovered its 23rd, Denmark its second, and Sweden
and Greece their first. Two have been found in the Czech Republic. Soon
there may be a urine test for the distorted proteins, or "prions,"
thought to cause the disease. That would mean investigators wouldn't have
to rely on dissecting cow brains for late-stage evidence of the slow-acting
disease (often called BSE). Testing would become easy and cheap for animals
that aren't ready for slaughter.
- Looking is often finding, so this would seem to bode
a consumer panic and economic disaster if mad cow is as widely spread as
many experts believe. The U.S. cattle industry long ago convinced itself
that a single case would mean curtains for its $3.6 billion in annual beef
exports, not to mention a bruising domestic whack as consumers defect to
chicken, pork or- horrors-soy burgers.
- But, lo, the pessimists overlook a phenomenon known as
desensitization or the dog-bites-man effect. In Germany beef consumption
dropped 40% when the first case was announced, but bounced back 20% by
- Slowly, painfully, the rest of the world is starting
to calm down and accept mad cow as part of reality. Isn't it time we caught
- The British experience has tended to color all thinking
about the disease, but Britain increasingly appears to be sui generis.
If the conventional account of mad cow's rise and spread is right, we should
be seeing rising numbers of human victims in Britain and beyond. We aren't.
- Hundreds of tons of British animal feed, the presumed
agent of infection, were exported to 80 countries until 1996, including
12 tons to the U.S. Given its long latency period, mad cow should have
insinuated itself in the cattle food chain under the standard scenario
before anybody noticed. Americans alone consume 45 million pounds a year
of "mechanically recovered meat," which until recently would
typically have contained a helping of brain and spinal tissues that are
considered infectious agents.
- Since the beginning, though, some experts have emphasized
a quirkiness of the British, namely their affection for sheep, which looms
larger in light of recent discoveries.
- In a territory the size of Oregon, British herders keep
42 million sheep and 10 million cows, a ratio not commonly found in industrial
countries. The U.S., for example, keeps seven million sheep and 100 million
cows. Importantly, the British also slaughter their sheep five times faster,
and eat 12 times as much lamb and mutton per capita.
- As befits a small, densely developed country with a great
many carcasses to dispose of, the British also have leaned heavily on protein
recycling. Greeks raise and eat a great deal of mutton, but most of their
beef is imported from France. The French eat as much lamb as the Brits,
but two-thirds is imported. Only Britain has bolted its sheep and beef
industries firmly together, feeding each on the remains of the other.
- The final key may be the unexpected laboratory finding
that sheep can get mad cow disease by eating tiny amounts of BSE-tainted
material. That sent investigators digging back through the brains of 3,000
sheep believed to have died of scrapie, a common illness from which mad
cow is theorized to have descended. These revisitations have yielded strong
indications that some of the sheep actually died of BSE.
- Most intriguing of all, infectious material was found
in the spleens of BSE-infected sheep, something not found in BSE cows.
Scrapie in sheep is known to make its way into many organs.
- This raises the possibility of a more complicated pas
de deux between the two species. Mad cow may have originated, as the standard
theory suggests, from age-old scrapie after British cows fed on infected
sheep. But the new possibility is that the BSE variant then passed back
into sheep feeding on infected cows, and then to humans who ate mutton,
- Certainly some such scenario is needed to explain the
eccentric cycling up of a British epidemic even as nothing similar has
befallen other BSE-infected countries. Mad cow the disease may turn out
to have a spotty presence almost everywhere. Mad cow the epidemic, along
with its small accompanying retinue of human illness cases, may be a freak
product of British husbandry.
- The British government has yet to advance an opinion
on whether humans can catch mad cow from eating lamb, let alone whether
sheep were responsible for transmitting a cow-incubated BSE into the human
food chain. But then the idea that humans catch mad cow from eating beef
is purely hypothetical too (though often reported as fact).
- At this point, it's probably more comforting than alarming
that science knows much less about mad cow than most of the public suspects.
Steps taken so far have been based on worst-case scenarios and a political
demand to be seen "doing something" rather than well-informed
estimates of risk. The British Medical Journal recently summed up the current
state of ignorance: "There is but one incontestable fact, that bovine
spongiform encephalopathy is the cause of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease."
- That's an important and interesting fact, but what does
it mean? The human version of mad cow is a horrible disease, but no more
horrible than "sporadic" CJD, which kills several thousand people
a year and has been recognized since 1920. As "sporadic" implies,
scientists have no idea how the disease picks its victims. For all we know
CJD has been passing between humans and animals for millennia.
- Washington and the cattle lobby have spent a decade praying
mad cow doesn't show up here, despite knowing it must sooner or later.
Though 36 million head are slaughtered a year, the Agriculture Department
has examined all of 12,000 brains since 1990. The time has come to gear
up a real hunt for our first case, if only to get it over with.