When the first undeniable American case of Mad Cow Disease broke into the news last December, a host of Bush officials trotted out to shout reassurances at us: "Just an isolated case!" "America's beef supply is the safest in the world!" "Trust us, we're experts!" Even George W. told the media that he'd eaten a big serving of beef for Christmas dinner—see, no problem, all clean, don't think about it any more.
Yes, admitted the Ag Department's top animal scientist, the mad cow in question was part of a herd of 80 cattle that could also be infected, but, by gollies, our animal tracking system is excellent, so "we feel confident that we are going to be able to determine the where-abouts of most, if not all, of these animals within the next several days." Trust us.
Seven weeks later, the Ag Department scientist had to admit that only one-third of the suspect cattle could be found. "We never expected to be able to find all of them," he lied in classic Bushite fashion, apparently hoping that we wouldn't recall his earlier promise. The other two-thirds couldn't be tracked and presumably had ended up in our lunches and dinners. Declaring the investigation over, he said, "It's time to move on."
Move on? To where? To a Mad Cow burger? To the intensive care unit? So much for our "experts."
When real experts do speak, the Bushites cover their ears. Ag Secretary Ann Veneman had attempted to calm public concern last December by convening a panel of international experts on Mad Cow Disease, expecting the members to do little more than a cursory review of the beef industry's production system and then rubber-stamp the industry's mantra that America has no Mad Cow problem, that the government's safety rules are more than adequate to protect consumers.
But—Holy Big Mac!—the panel bolted. In remark-ably direct language, Ann's rebellious experts found that Mad Cow Disease is common in our cattle herds, that the USDA's voluntary tracking system is grossly inadequate, and that the meat industry's method of feeding rendered parts of hogs, chickens, goats, road kill (yes, road kill), and other animals to cattle (which, by nature, are not carnivores at all, but grass- grazing vegetarians—vegans, even) is inherently unsafe.
The experts also concluded that the reason the USDA has found only this one case of Mad Cow Disease so far is that it hasn't been looking very hard. Of the 30 million cattle slaughtered each year, only 40,000 are tested for the deadly disease, barely one-tenth of one percent. The panel chairman said that USDA might find "a case a month" of Mad Cow if it was doing enough testing.
Politicking till the cows come home
The Bushites and industry, which are always lecturing environmentalists and consumers that "science, not politics" should be the sole basis for making regulatory policy, responded to this scientific finding by—what else?— resorting to pure politics. Industry lobbyists rushed to the media to blindly reiterate the absurd and thoroughly unscientific claim that Mad Cow "poses no risk to consumers." A top lobbying group, apparently auditioning for Saturday Night Live, complained that the scientists' report was "negative in tone" (well, duh, yeah —it's hard to be upbeat about the probability of Mad Cow in our Happy Meals). This same group, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, then invoked the Bushonian Gospel, asserting that the best policy in these situations was for government to continue its benign neglect by "letting industry address these things."
Did I mention that meat processors and corporate cattle operators have put nearly a million bucks into Bush's presidential campaign? The Bushites can talk about "science" until the cows come home, but their policies are all about politics.
Despite the official shuck and jive, the basic facts about Mad Cow Disease are not in dispute:
• It has infected thousands of animals in England in the past decade, and more recently has spread to other countries, leading to the destruction of millions of cattle;
• Eighty-eight people are known to have died from the human variant of Mad Cow Disease in England, four in the rest of Europe, two are dying in Thailand, and three Americans have died after eating elk or deer probably infected with a version of the disease, possibly after the animals were fed processed food pellets that included rendered cow parts.
• Officially, no person in the U.S. has contracted the human version of Mad Cow, but many experts now say the disease could be incubating inside millions—or even hundreds of millions—of meat-eaters here and elsewhere the world over (once ingested, it can take 40 years for Mad Cow to appear in the eater).
• No amount of cooking, freezing, pickling, irradiation, drying, or smoking will protect against this contaminated meat.
On NBC's Today, USDA Secretary Veneman insisted "the fact of the matter is that all scientific evidence would show, based upon what we know about this disease, that muscle cuts—that is, the meat of the animal itself should not cause any risk to human health."
This statement directly contradicts a 2002 report from the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, which states: "In terms of the public health risk, consumers do not always know when foods and other products they use may contain central nervous system tissue?Many edible products, such as beef stock, beef extract, and beef flavoring, are frequently made by boiling the skeletal remains (including the vertebral column) of the carcass?"
According to another watchdog group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, spinal-cord contamination may also be found in US hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza toppings, and taco fillings. In fact, a 2002 USDA survey showed that approximately 35% of high-risk meat products tested positive for central-nervous-system tissues.
The GAO report continues: "In light of the experiences in Japan and other countries that were thought to be BSE-free, we believe that it would be prudent for USDA to consider taking some action to inform consumers when products may contain central nervous system or other tissue that could pose a risk if taken from a BSE-infected cow."
Not only do American cows have this horrific disease, but there's distressing evidence that American people do, too. Consider the Alzheimer's connection.
Alzheimer's disease, little known just a generation ago, is now so common in our land that the term has come to be used as a joke, as in: "Excuse me for forgetting your name—I'm having an Alzheimer's moment."
Of course, Alzheimer's is no joke, but a cruel and fatal disease that essentially dissolves the brain, causing victims literally to lose their minds. Alzheimer's has been surging in America over the past two decades: It's now registered as the eighth leading cause of death, afflicting some four million of our people.
But there's one aspect of this that the economic and political powers that be in our country don't want scientists discussing in public. Autopsy studies done at Yale and elsewhere show that 20 percent of people diagnosed with Alzheimer's were misdiagnosed: They actually had another brain-wasting disease called Creutzfeldt- Jakob Disease (CJD), and thousands of these cases might well be a variant of CJD caused by Mad Cow infected meat that the victims had eaten years earlier.
Yes, this means that Mad Cow Disease in humans, which the beef industry has adamantly insisted does not exist at all in America, could actually be widespread and already killing people under another name.
You'd think that with so much at stake, the USDA would step up its inspection efforts. But since the 1970s, it has cut its staff of meat inspectors—who oversee about 6,500 slaughter and processing plants—from 12,000 to about 7,600 in 2002. Overworked inspectors report making "drive-by inspections" because they barely have time to stop at one plant before moving on to the next. When they do test, until very recently they have only looked at "downer" cows—animals deemed at higher risk of having Mad Cow Disease because they are so debilitated that they cannot walk, or because they show signs of nervous-system disorders.
However, in Europe, where they test 1 out of every 4 cows, and in Japan, where they test 100% of all cattle bound for human consumption, inspectors have found a number of cases of Mad Cow Disease in animals who appeared perfectly healthy. In fact, even the mad cow recently discovered in the U.S. didn't appear sick. Luckily for us, it seems she had a birthing injury that left her unable to stand, which in turn flagged her to be one of the small percentage of downer cows tested. Had she been able to walk, she presumably would not have been tested at all.
USDA gets cowed
Beef is a huge business in America. There are more than 100 million cattle in the US at present, and meat and milk sales produce approximately $54 billion a year, with more than $100 billion in related services and industries. This is not an industry that wants any whisper of a deadly contamination in its products. Yet rather than clean up its act, it uses its political clout to put the hush-hush on reality.
Fortunately, an unlikely coalition of pure-food groups, scientists, consumer advocates, foreign-trade representatives and even small meat processors themselves kept pounding away at the USDA's mad Mad Cow policy until Ms. Veneman finally had to blink. The Ag Department announced in mid-March that it will increase tenfold the testing for Mad Cow Disease, including half of the nation's 446,000 "downer" cows. It will also test 20,000 older, apparently healthy cows at slaughter.
That's an improvement, but keep in mind that by no means does this new testing ensure that every cow is clean—99% of cows will still not be tested.
Even this small increase in testing might not have happened if not for Tom Ellestead. He's an owner of the plant in Moses Lake, Washington, where America's first mad cow was found. Contrary to the USDA's claim that this was a downer cow, Ellestead has signed an affidavit stating that the cow appeared healthy at the time of slaughter and was tested by accident. Meaning, of course, that if a "healthy" cow can have Mad Cow, how many other "healthy" animals have escaped detection and found their way into our food supply? Ellestead bluntly says that, rather than create a nationwide panic, the USDA inspector changed the paperwork to say that the cow in question was a downer cow.
Amid the swirling controversy, Secretary Veneman announced that even the modest new steps toward reform would begin not today or tomorrow?but in a few months!
I feel safer already. Don't you? If you squeeze your mind shut real tight, you might be able to keep from thinking about all the untested cows that will have been killed and eaten between last December and this coming June, when the new testing begins. Or you might keep from thinking about the 251,000 cows that, according to the USDA, died in 2002 due to unknown reasons, or for reasons that could be consistent with BSE-related clinical signs. Or you might put out of mind the rendered dairy cows that are still fed to American pigs—and the rendered pig carcasses that are, in turn, fed back to cows. Or the fact that chickens are fed beef parts, and that chicken manure is then scooped up and (sorry to have to tell you this) fed back to cows. Or about the various bodily fluids and gelatin from cows that are still used in a wide variety of processed-food products, despite the likelihood of containing nerve tissue. You get the idea.
Beefing up standards
Three minimal steps should be taken immediately to learn the full truth and to protect public health.
1. The USDA should test all cattle —as Japan does as a matter of course. At the behest of Tyson and the other big beef purveyors, the Bushites have rejected this move.
2. The USDA should ban the feeding of any and all slaughterhouse waste to cattle. While the agency has finally banned feeding cattle parts to cattle (yes—cow cannibalism!), those cattle parts are still fed to hogs, chickens, etc., which in turn are fed to cattle. It's second-hand cannibalism, and it can pass Mad Cow Disease right through to your child's burger. Secretary Veneman has rejected this zero-tolerance ban on cow cannibalism, however, not wishing to inconvenience the beef purveyors.
3. There should be a national monitoring system of all CJD cases in humans to determine the extent that Mad Cow infection is involved. This is no big deal, for doctors routinely mon itor and report on all sorts of other diseases so medical science can know what it's dealing with. Again, the beef purveyors have said no.
Over the long term, we should take a cue from the European Union's Agriculture, Rural Development and Fisheries Commissioner, Franz Fischler, who backs a German plan to reshape agriculture toward "eco-farming." The EU and the German government are shifting subsidies from meat and bulk cereals to environmental services for farmers, extensive livestock farming and organic farming.
Finally, keep in mind that the extent of the risk of human infection is likely to remain unknown for some time. You need to make a judgment call. If you want to eat beef, you can limit your risk by avoiding the foods that are most likely to carry Mad Cow Disease: brains and processed beef products that may contain nervous-system tissue, such as hamburgers, hot dogs, and sausage. Beef labeled "organic" or "biodynamic" carries the least risk; inspections confirm that these cattle are not fed animal remains.
If you just can't live without a juicy burger, encourage your favorite local burger joint to follow the lead of Burgerville. This Northwestern chain announced in late February that it would buy beef solely from a cooperative of 40 sustainable-farming family ranches dedicated to raising cattle in harmony with nature, without the use of hormones, antibiotics, genetically modified grain or any animal by-products.
Who's misleading whom?
Recently, Creekstone Farms, a small producer of top-quality Kansas beef, announced that, in addition to the USDA's inspections, it was going to pay certified private labs to have 100% of its cows tested. But the USDA rushed forward to say that it will not allow private testing, no matter how good it is.
Also, at the behest of the corporate beef purveyors, the USDA says that neither Creekstone nor any other enterprising firm can promote its beef as being 100% tested—even though it is. Why? Because, say the Bushites, this would "mislead" consumers into thinking that 100% testing of herds is better than the government's 1% testing.
Well, more testing does inherently provide more safety, but Creekstone was leaving it up to us consumers to decide if we think that's better for us.
It is curious that the Bush administration, which poses as a paragon of free enterprise, opposes enterprise that would help small business and protect consumers.
The 6-cent solution
Industry lobbyists claim that inspecting all U.S. cattle for Mad Cow Disease would be exorbitantly expensive, costing way more than it's worth to protect public health. How expensive would it be? Testing 100% of America's 30 million cows slaughtered each year would add only about 6 cents a pound to the consumer price of beef. A January poll by Consumers Union finds that 95% of the public would gladly pay 10 cents more per pound for tested beef.