Mad Cow Impacts Entire
US Food Supply
Big Agribusiness Disease

By Geov Parrish

The confirmation last week of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) -- mad cow disease -- in a dairy cow outside the town of Mabton in Central Washington has sent the US beef industry into a tailspin. Industry spokespeople and the USDA have scrambled to reassure consumers that the country's beef is safe and that the chances are extremely low of any humans contracting the debilitating and fatal Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD, the human form of spongiform encephalopathy). Nonetheless, so far at least 28 countries have suspended the import of US beef, and the public remains skeptical.
As we should. It's true that the chances of contracting CJD are remote at this point -- but its discovery in the US, 15 years after a mad cow epidemic ravaged Britain, is an indicator of much deeper problems.
The Mabton cow came from a large, mechanized operation, with 4,100 cows. It's a far cry from the family dairy farms of old, which for simple logistical reasons couldn't support more than a couple dozen head. My colleague at Eat the State!, Maria Tomchick, grew up on a family-owned dairy farm a quarter century ago; she ticks off the differences that come with a large, mechanized operation, of the sort big agribusiness now routinely runs.
In 2002, there were some 96 million cattle living in America, virtually the same number as in 1960 -- but on only half as many farms. Maria's parents sold their farm 20 years ago. Once there were nearly 10 million farms in a country of only 100 million; today, with 300 million people, there are only about 2 million farms. Mechanization has made the farms larger even as it has helped depopulate rural America.
It almost goes without saying that this sort of factory farming is cruel to the animals, and leaves animals far more prone to disease. The machines themselves can be vectors of cross-contamination, both when dairy cows are alive (milking) and when any type of cow is being rendered. It also means the cows aren't individual animals -- they're cogs in a machine, milked and slaughtered on an exact schedule. A dairy cow, in years back, usually lived 15 or so years on a farm; now, they're slaughtered for meat at age four, sooner if they're sick or a "downer" cow -- a cow that cannot stand or walk easily on its own due to disease or injury.
The initial symptoms of BSE only emerge, and are testable, four or five years after contamination. Many of the cows that wind up in our nation's food supply are slaughtered before any symptoms of BSE could appear. There could easily be any number of past instances of contaminated meat making its way to food distributors -- as happened last week before the Mabton cow's test results came in and a recall was issued.
If that's not scary enough, consider what happens to "downer" cows. Their meat does not go into the human food supply -- but the diseases that felled them can. The cows' meat is instead mixed in with grain (for extra protein) and fed to chickens, on the reasoning that viruses, bacteria, and the prions that carry BSE don't affect chickens' digestive systems. Assuming that's true, it goes straight through the birds instead -- into their manure, which is then used by many organic farming operations as a fertilizer. Remember that, vegetarians, and vegans, the next time you eat carrots or potatoes without peeling them.
Regulators are having a hard time figuring out where, exactly, the Mabton cow came from in its life's journey. It had apparently been born in Canada, sold several times, and lived in multiple states. In all likelihood it contracted BSE as a calf -- perhaps through the use of artificial milk, given to factory calves because it's cheaper (and because mom is long gone). The fake milk is protein-enriched through being sprayed with freeze-dried cow blood. Beyond the cow-cannibalism, that's also a great disease vector. The prions that spread BSE are impervious to freezing or high heat.
None of these reckless (and, to the animals, unbelievably cruel) big agribusiness practices would be possible were we Americans not, by and large, profoundly ignorant as to where our food comes from. Similarly, contamination of all sorts in our nation's food supply has become far, far more likely in recent years through the systematic relaxation and dismantling of food safety regulations and inspections. Budgets for federal food safety enforcement have been gutted; leadership posts have gone to figures closely tied to the industries they're supposedly regulating; compliance now frequently relies on industry's self-policing. For the worst corporate violators, the ones actually inspected and found to be egregiously violating food safety laws, the penalties are slaps on the wrist. Many large operations consider such fines a cost of doing business, a pittance compared to the money they save through mistreatment of the animals, fouling of the environment, and careless handling of the meat.
These issues are hardly confined to cattle -- industrial pig farming has become notorious for its noxiousness -- or to meat. The use of antibiotics on farm animals, pesticides on crops, and genetic engineering on anything agribusiness can figure out how to "improve" all carry risks right through the food chain into our bodies.
Illness from bad meat and food is almost impossible to quantify; unless it's an obvious epidemic involving serious illness and a single source, most such illnesses go unreported. Certainly, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease is well-established in the U.S.; some 300 new cases are diagnosed each year. News reports that no cases of CJD have ever been confirmed in the U.S. are only technically true; CJD can only be confirmed by autopsy, and beyond the expense, handling the brain tissue of someone infected with CJD, even in a highly controlled laboratory setting, is simply too dangerous. This disease is with us, and contaminated meat is almost certainly one of the ways it has spread.
The discovery of mad cow disease in one cow, out of nearly 100 million now living in the U.S., is hardly a major risk to the public. But the factors that made it possible -- big agribusiness, lax regulation, and consumer ignorance -- also fuel any number of far more common problems. For meat, such problems are usually avoidable by buying organic meat free of antibiotics and the ravages of factory farming. In fact, for nutrients and taste as well as food safety, organics in general are well worth the higher price.
Just peel your carrots before you eat them.
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