By John E. Peck
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On December 23, 2003, the first official U.S. case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE)—better known as mad cow disease—was reported by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) at the Sunny Dene Ranch near Mabton, Washington. While Wall Street investors scrambled to monitor their McDonald’s stocks, White House spokesperson Scott McClellan hastened to assure everyone that President Bush was still enjoying beef. USDA secretary Ann Veneman also publicly pledged to serve beef to her family as part of their yuletide feast. The world’s response to the arrival of mad cow in the U.S. was basically a replay of what happened earlier in Canada when BSE was reported there in May. A total of 43 countries have now imposed bans on U.S. beef imports, including Japan, which purchased $854 million worth in 2002. Of the top four beef buyers (Japan, Mexico, South Korea, and Canada account for 92 percent of U.S. exports) only Canada does not have a full ban (Canada will accept boneless beef from U.S. cattle under 30 months old). The final economic impact on the $40 billion U.S. beef industry won’t be known for a while. Wisconsin alone exported live animals and meat worth $194 million last year, much of it to Japan and South Korea. Meanwhile, those U.S. farmers who had already switched to low-input, organic, grass-fed systems reported unprecedented demand for their BSE-free meat. Similar booms in natural grass-fed beef prices are being reported in Brazil and Australia.
Mad cow is but one member of an extended disease family known as Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSEs). These TSEs are caused by eating bits of renegade protein known as prions. Since these abnormal prions cannot be digested, they accumulate in toxic clumps eventually producing holes in brain tissue. In deer and elk, this lethal neurological condition is known as Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), in sheep it is called Scrappie, while in humans it is known as Kuru (endemic among certain human societies that practice ritualistic cannibalism), though there is growing medical evidence that pathogenic prions also trigger variant Creuzveldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), as well as some forms of Alzheimers. Being smaller and more resilient than viruses or bacteria, prions are not destroyed by freezing, cooking, sterilization, or irradiation. Worse yet, pathogenic prions can jump the species barrier.
Upton Sinclair was one of the first to describe “downer” dairy cows—too sick to walk—being dragged to slaughter in his 1906 novel about the Chicago stockyards, The Jungle. Many would argue that the situation in the factory farm/slaughterhouse meat industry complex is worse today than when Sinclair lived. Reading books such as Gail Eisnitz’s Slaughterhouse and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, it is tempting to look at the calendar to remind oneself of the century. Today, over 200,000 known “downers” are sent to U.S. meatpackers each year (though many others go undetected) and they remain primary mad cow suspects. Some of the first scientific evidence of the deadly presence of TSEs in the U.S. came from mink studies by Professor Richard Marsh of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Veterinarian Department in the 1980s. His finding that deadly factory mink farm epidemics were likely caused by high protein feed derived from “downer” dairy cows was downplayed by academic superiors, government officials, and industry spokespeople. Marsh was hounded and eventually ostracized for daring to expose the dirty laundry of the meat industry. Like Rachel Carson, his groundbreaking investigation is only now being vindicated after his death.
Across the Atlantic the existence of mad cow was confirmed in the UK in 1985, and the outbreak soon spread across the rest of Europe, ultimately leading to the slaughter of 3.7 million animals. In one of the more bizarre public relations attempts to boost consumer morale, British agriculture secretary, John Gummer, fed a hamburger to his four-year-old daughter before television cameras in 1990. Three months later British health minister, Stephen Dorrell, was before Parliament telling the world that mad cow could also sicken humans. Six years later, the first victims emerged. Over 140 people have now died in Europe—mostly in Britain—from variant CJD and, given the long incubation period, the final human toll will be much higher. This horrific experience led to the adoption of much tougher food safety standards worldwide. Europe adopted a full ban on animal byproducts in livestock feed and now requires BSE testing of all animals over 30 months old—one out of every four animals. Belgium alone tests 20 times as many animals each year for mad cow as the U.S.—Japan tests every animal killed, regardless of age.
While some farm/food activists in the U.S. were diligently following the mad cow nightmare in Britain with alarm, millions of TV viewers became unwittingly exposed to the specter thanks to Oprah. On April 16, 1996 Oprah’s guest was Howard Lyman, a Montana rancher turned vegan activist, and mad cow was one of the topics. Lyman revealed that U.S. cows were literally eating themselves (with human help) and this revelation led Oprah to exclaim that it had “just stopped me cold from eating another hamburger.” Within hours of the show’s airing, cattle futures dropped by 20 percent on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) and the Texas Cattleman’s Association pulled $600,000 in advertising from Oprah’s network, while filing suit under a new corporate-friendly Texas “food disparagement” law. Their attempt to stifle public criticism proved unsuccessful, and Oprah won her free speech case after spending millions on defense attorneys.
In 1997, John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton of Madison, Wisconsin-based PR Watch released Mad Cow U.S.A, another warning that was quickly pooh-poohed as hysterical and alarmist by public officials and industry spin doctors alike. (Their book is available online at www.prwatch.org/books/madcow.) Howard Lyman followed in 1998 with his own scathing expose of the meat industry, Mad Cowboy. Lyman minces no words, letting consumers know that everything from roadkill animals to euthanized pets go to rendering plants and ultimately into livestock rations and onto butcher blocks. Those with a big stake in the status quo howled for damage control. With the results of a three-year, taxpayer-subsidized, computer-driven study in hand, the deputy director of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, George Gray, soothingly reported: “We are firmly confident that BSE will not become an animal or public health problem in America. The United States is very resistant to BSE. As far as we know, it’s not here now, but if it does get in, it can’t become established. Basically with the measures that are already in place, even with imperfect compliance, the disease in the cattle herd dies out, and the potential for people to be exposed to infected cattle parts is tiny” (Agriview, 12/20/2001). Rural realities have since proven the statistical models wrong.
The White House knew as early as 1991 that a moratorium on feeding livestock back to livestock was necessary in the U.S. to avoid its own mad cow outbreak. A federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) report from that year, obtained by PR Watch through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) clearly states: “The advantage of this option is that it minimizes the risk of BSE. The disadvantage is that the cost to the livestock and rendering industries would be substantial.” However, it was not until 1997 that the FDA issued a ruling that all livestock feed containing meat and bone meal from ruminants must be labeled “do not feed to ruminants.” Contrary to the rhetoric of government officials and corporate apologists, there is no “firewall.” The White House never banned the practice of livestock cannibalism, nor has the government ever offered proof of its claim that there is 99 percent industry compliance with the labeling rule. In fact, an FDA inspection of rendering plants and feed mills in 2000 revealed that up to half lacked the proper warning labels and up to a quarter had no way to even detect or prevent mix-ups in their use of risky animal byproducts (Wisconsin State Journal, 1/12/2001).
In January 2002, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) also issued a report that found the FDA “has not acted promptly to compel firms to keep prohibited proteins out of cattle feed and to label animal feed that cannot be fed to cattle.” According to the GAO, noncompliant firms had not been re-inspected in two years, firms with multiple infractions evaded any penalty, and the FDA’s inspection data were “severely flawed.” As recently as July 2003, the FDA was still issuing consent decrees against feed mills for non-compliance. The GAO report concluded, the “FDA does not know the full extent of industry compliance.” A Friends of the Earth (FOE) review of FDA records found over a dozen feed mills in Washington State had violated federal labeling requirements between 1998 and 2002 (Seattle Post Intelligencer, 12/27/03). In Wisconsin alone there are over 500 feed mills supposedly subject to some form of government regulation.
The consumer watchdog Public Citizen has issued countless warnings about lethargic food safety enforcement over the last few years. Whereas close to 35 million head of cattle are slaughtered annually in the U.S., only 57,000 animals have been tested for BSE since 1990. Public Citizen has shown that there is little testing consistency across states, virtually no public transparency of the process, and too much industry discretion about which animals are tested (www.citizen.org/documents/madcowreport.pdf). For example, in Wisconsin last year 1.5 million cattle were slaughtered, yet only 2,900 were checked for BSE. Ongoing White House efforts to “privatize” regulatory functions, as well as federal and state budget cutting exercises have meant dwindling food safety inspections, more cursory and flimsy testing, and a general eroding of public oversight of the meat industry. Big Beef has been larding politicians with campaign contributions over the years—$22 million since 1990, mostly to Republicans—towards this end.
One thing that has been consistent over time is the concerted effort by the agribusiness establishment and government bureaucracy to squash concern about BSE in the U.S. The revolving door between Big Beef and the White House is notorious. Lisa Harrison, former public relations director for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association—who sent out press releases with titles like “Mad Cow Disease Not a Problem in the U.S.” following the Oprah show—is now the USDA’s BSE spokesperson. Veneman’s current chief of staff, Dale Moore, is a former lobbyist for the meat industry. Recently appointed to the federal mad cow committee is William Heuston, another meat industry shill who was an expert witness against Oprah Winfrey and Howard Lyman in their libel suit. Such paralyzing and corrupting conflicts of interest in the wake of the mad cow epidemic forced the UK to create a separate Food Safety Agency independent from the Ministry of Agriculture. The USDA, though, is treating mad cow as more of a public relations problem for meatpackers than as a real safety concern for consumers. Helping with this effort are right-wing “junk science” pundits, such as Steve Milloy of the Cato Institute, now hitting the mass media with stories disputing that prions even cause disease.
The fact that mad cow found its way to the U.S. was almost an inevitable consequence of corporate globalization and industrial agribusiness. The cow that tested positive for BSE in Washington State was most likely imported from Canada with 80 others in 2001. So far only a handful of those other animals have been located and their adopted herds quarantined. Government regulation of cross border livestock shipment is minimal at best, and transshipment has skyrocketed with the expansion of global free trade regimes like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In 2003 Mexico shipped over 1 million cows to the U.S., while Canada exported 1.7 million cows. The lack of government oversight goes even further as revealed by a story in the Yakima Herald Tribune. Because there is no mandated domestic tracking system, an entire herd of 449 bull calves in Washington state had to be killed because USDA officials had no way to identify the single offspring from the BSE infected cow among them.
Factory farming only increases the likelihood for BSE contamination. The infected cow was part of a mega-dairy operation involving 2,600 milking cows and 1,300 dry and replacement cows in 2 locations—Mabton and Grandview. Standard procedure on such factory farms entails recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) injections, as well as feeding of a total mixed ration (TMR) containing “high protein” animal byproducts. These cows are prone to elevated levels of mastitis (udder infection) and other health problems, prompting farmers to use more (often illegal) antibiotics and other dubious supplements. Cramped cows on drugs also “burn out” quickly—lasting only three to four years, half the productive lifespan of a dairy cow out on pasture—and this high attrition rate means more “downer” cows in the food stream. Treating animals like machines also means that factory farms cannot sustain themselves—cows are culled too fast to produce enough young to even replace themselves—so they must rely on constant infusions of fresh heifers from either better managed (but still going bankrupt) family farm dairy herds or imported livestock herds.
Further up the food chain, the chance to spread BSE continues. Disassembly line speeds in U.S. slaughterhouses run at rates three times that legally allowed in Europe, triggering more worker injuries and aggravating meat contamination. Cost-saving “innovations” like air compressed stunning, bolt guns, carcass splitting, mechanical deboning, and advanced meat recovery (AMR) translate into more “non-meat” waste in the food supply. Finding a chunk of spinal column still attached to a T-bone steak at the store is no longer that uncommon. Even if an animal were to test positive for a health problem in the U.S., its meat has long since been processed and dispersed throughout the nation’s food supply—executives and shareholders simply can’t stomach the prospect of profit being held up due to frivolous health regulations. Thanks to increasing corporate consolidation of the meat industry, a single hamburger patty can contain up to 100 different animals, and one sick animal can contaminate up to 32,000 pounds of ground beef. As happened in this case, meat from the BSE infected downer cow slaughtered on December 9 in Moses Lake, Washington quickly found its way to eight states (Washington, Nevada, Alaska, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, California, Hawaii), as well as the U.S. territory of Guam. According to the USDA, its subsequent recall of 10,410 pounds of hamburger and meat cuts was taken out of “an abundance of caution,” not because of any imminent threat of BSE contamination. Still in a state of denial, the agency has not provided any BSE/CJD health advisory to those who may have consumed the suspect meat either.
Researchers have shown that blood can also harbor pathogenic prions. In fact, U.S. residents who spent extensive time in Europe during the mad cow epidemic are not allowed to donate blood here and surgeons in the UK still rely on imported blood for operations there precisely because of this risk. Yet, under the current USDA regulations there is no labeling or restriction placed on feeding cattle blood back to calves in the form of milk replacer, calf starter, and other supplements. In Wisconsin numerous companies promote these milk replacers with “spray dried animal blood cells” to dairy farmers. Bovine serum is also used by corporations like Monsanto to “feed” the genetically engineered e. coli bacteria which produce its brand name rBGH—Posilac—yet any potential connection between this and BSE has not been addressed by the USDA.
Another legal loophole for possible spread of mad cow involves gelatin, tallow, and “plate waste”—i.e., cooked meat that has been offered to humans and then salvaged by the meat industry for feeding back to livestock. Worse yet, USDA rules still permit the use of ruminant byproducts to feed non-ruminants—such as swine, horses, pets, and poultry—which are then in turn fed back to cattle or people. This vicious cycle of livestock cannibalism only magnifies the spread of BSE within the animal and human food supply.
The immediate USDA response to mad cow in the U.S. was to ban use of downer cows for any human meat use, to hold all products from BSE tested animals until the results are actually in, expand overall BSE testing, ban use of Advanced Meat Recovery (AMR) technology on animals over 30 months old and phase out air injection stunning, establish a national livestock tracking system, and require tougher labeling of animal food products that contain more than just meat (i.e., spinal cord, brain, nerve tissue, intestine). For farm/food critics, these are long overdue steps that don’t go far enough. The USDA plan does not keep downer cows out of rendering plants to become “fresh” livestock feed, does nothing about ending the practice of livestock cannibalism, does not insure that livestock are free of BSE, or that human food is safe from non-meat materials that might contain pathogenic prions.
Stopping Mad Cow
Demand Immediate Congressional Investigation of the Meat Industry. There should be national public hearings on the mad cow issue and more general food safety concerns with the meat industry. Furthermore, Congress should call on the GAO for a comprehensive review of USDA and FDA meat industry oversight and enforcement activity, as well as consideration of alternatives—such as a more transparent accountable federal agency exclusively responsible for food safety. The contributing role of the land grant colleges also needs to be addressed since for decades public researchers and extension agents have been developing and promoting questionable technologies such as rBGH, AMR, and TMR, which help spread BSE.
Approve and Implement Country of Origin Labeling (COOL). Consumers and farmers have the right to know exactly where their food and feed come from—and this includes meat products, dietary supplements, milk replacers, and the like. Many farmer and consumer groups fought hard to include COOL in the last Farm Bill, but it has now been stalled due to agribusiness lobbying with the support of the Bush administration. COOL should be passed by Congress and enacted immediately.
Ban the Feeding of Animal Byproducts to Livestock. Livestock cannibalism is not natural and is dangerous. Herbivores should not be consuming ground-up carcasses of other animals as part of a “high protein” total mixed ration (TMR), or a separate nutritional supplement, no matter what extension agents or agribusiness salesmen say. The same goes for poultry manure, cooked human “plate waste,” gelatin, tallow, blood/bone meal, or other animal-derived byproducts used as livestock “feed,” which could serve as sources of BSE infection and contamination.
Ban the Use of Bovine Blood in Milk Replacer and Other Calf Supplements. U.S. citizens who have been to Europe and possibly exposed to BSE are prohibited from donating blood, yet U.S. agribusiness corporations are allowed to extract blood from slaughtered livestock and then sell such to farmers as a “high protein” ingredient in milk replacer, calf starter, and other growth supplements. The World Health Organization has warned against this vampiric practice for over a decade and it should be prohibited. The role of livestock blood in the manufacture of other livestock products—such as rBGH—also needs to be federally investigated for its potential BSE contamination role.
Ban the Use of “Downer” Cows for Human Food. Dairy cows that can’t even walk into a slaughterhouse have obvious health problems, such as BSE, and are not fit for human consumption. Meat from downer cows has supposedly been banned from use in the USDA School Lunch Program for years, yet it has been deemed by the FDA as safe to eat by adults and children outside of school. No downer cow meat or other byproducts should be allowed in the human food supply. The fact that irradiation does not destroy prions, should also make the USDA think twice about its decision to allow irradiation as an effective and safe form of “pasteurization.”
Ban Advance Meat Recovery (AMR) and Other Risky Slaughter Practices. Mechanical deboning and advanced meat recovery (AMR) are just money grubbing efforts to extract every last ounce of tissue from a carcass in order to make “more” product—hamburger, pepperoni, hotdogs, bologna, tacos, sausage. The use of air injection stunners and bolt guns to kill livestock should also be banned since this guarantees the splatter of brain tissue over the rest of the animal carcass. Such sloppy practices almost guarantee BSE contamination. People should not be misled into eating brain, cartilage, gristle, tendons, nerves, and other basically indigestible material they think is “meat” and thereby exposing themselves to pathogenic prions. AMR and these other risky meat industry practices belong in the technological trashbin.
Regulate High Risk Animal Byproducts in Dietary Supplements and Cosmetics. Livestock tissues that could contain pathogenic prions such as brain, spinal cord, and dorsal root ganglia are also used as ingredients in many human dietary supplements. The federal government should require reporting from manufacturers, mandate risk warnings for consumers and comprehensive product registration, as well as explicit identification of the livestock ingredients and country of origin labeling (COOL). The same federal scrutiny is deserved for cosmetics that contain beef tallow.
Severely Restrict and Monitor the Importation of Live Animals. The reckless transshipment of disease-carrying species across borders has been one of the worst consequences of free trade—and the spread of BSE across North America is but the latest example. Just because factory farms are so unsustainable that they burnout their cows prematurely and can’t produce enough calves to maintain their herd levels does not mean they should be allowed to import animals from Canada or Argentina at will. The USDA must conduct strict border checks for diseases like BSE and implement a national livestock tracking system, like the one already in place in Brazil (now the largest beef exporter in the world).
Expand BSE testing to All Slaughtered Livestock. Comprehensivs BSE testing of all livestock is already mandated in Japan, and can be done in but a few hours with new BSE tests that the U.S. has not yet adopted. In fact, one of these quick BSE tests, widely used in Europe, was developed by 1997 Nobel Prize winning scientist and prion expert, Prof. Stanley Prusiner at the University of California, San Francisco. The U.S. needs to upgrade its scientific procedures, learn from other countries, and get more serious about routine livestock disease testing. Ignorance is not bliss.
Expand Preventative TSE Research and Begin CJD Monitoring in Humans. The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) should begin proactive education of medical professionals about TSEs and initiate nationwide monitoring of CJD. Casual surveys of death certificates are not adequate. The National Prion Disease Pathology Surveillance Center at Case Western Reserve University, created by the CDC in 1997, needs more funding and publicity of its vital work. While the National Institute of Health has allocated $27 million towards TSE related research, this work needs to get beyond theoretical issues to work on preventative solutions.