by Ardeth Baxter
It’s official: Mad Cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, has been found in the United States. But some scientists are convinced that BSE has actually been present in US herds for a long time, and that its incurable human counterpart (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or CJD) may already be killing many Americans every year.
Believed to have its origins in scrapie, the sheep form of TSE (transmissible spongiform encephalopathy), which crossed the species barrier when cattle were fed the rendered (converted) remains of sheep, Mad Cow disease is likely spread through the grisly, cannibalistic factory farming practice of cramming herbivorous cattle into gigantic feedlots and forcing them to literally eat their own kind; through feeding cow blood meal to calves; and through chickens raised on cattle waste and bone meal whose meat and manure are in turn fed to cows. Every year some 200,000 “downers” (cows unable to stand or walk because of injuries or undiagnosed illnesses, possibly including Mad Cow disease) were slaughtered, and three-quarters of them entered the food chain. After the Mad Cow scare this past December, this practice was stopped. Downer meat as well as slaughterhouse waste like cow brains, eyes, spinal cords and intestines also end up in pet food as well as in farm animal feed. Both ruminants and carnivores can contract TSEs. Wild cats and house cats, cows, sheep, mink, elk, deer, and possibly chickens, turkeys and pigs (the latter three may be “silent carriers”) are susceptible.
Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease are always fatal. Abnormal proteins called prions multiply. Prions are believed to kill neurons and cause holes in the brain, which leads to neurological problems and death. Hundreds of cases of CJD occur in the US every year, according to the US Center for Disease Control. Five to 10% of them occur in patients with a genetic susceptibility to TSEs (called “sporadic” CJD). Since an outbreak of Mad Cow disease in England in the 1990s, some 150 mostly young people are known to have died from vCJD (“variant” CJD) through eating beef or receiving blood or tissue transplants contaminated with prions. There is strong evidence that infectious prions are present in nerve as well as muscle tissue, particularly in ground meat but also in steaks.
It’s speculated that CJD in humans may also be contracted through blood transfusions, surgical catgut (made from pig), milk, medicine, cosmetics, tissue and organ transplants, gelatin, and some organic fertilizers. The list of possibilities for disease transmission is extensive but remains largely uninvestigated.
A number of autopsy studies have shown that a few percent of deaths from Alzheimer’s disease (the eighth biggest cause of death in the US) are actually undiagnosed CJD, and CJD may account for as many as 12% of all dementias. Therefore thousands of Americans may already be dying each year from eating infected meat from mad cows. And since the incubation period for TSEs is so long (sometimes decades), no one knows how widespread this terrifying disease will become in the future.
Bowing to consumer pressure and a ban on US beef by foreign countries, the US government has finally been forced to take a stand after a shameful history of largely sidestepping the Mad Cow issue. The current Secretary of Agriculture, a Bush appointee, is Ann Veneman, an ex-board member of the biotech corporation Monsanto. Monsanto is responsible for the controversial bovine growth hormone (rBGH) that stimulates dairy cows to produce larger amounts of milk, often makes them ill, and is present in the dairy products consumers buy. Dale Moore, her Chief of Staff, is the former chief lobbyist for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association! In other words, the foxes are guarding the henhouse. In my opinion, government and powerful meat lobbyists have dragged their feet because they’re more interested in promoting corporate profits than the health of US consumers. According to Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, authors of “Mad Cow USA”, the cost of testing all cattle for mad cow would amount to only a few cents a pound for beef. The good news is that in late December 2003, Ms. Veneman announced a ban on the slaughter and selling of downed cattle, something animal advocacy groups had been trying to get through Congress for years, to no avail. This will compel livestock owners to treat their animals more humanely because if the animals become non-ambulatory, it will cut down on the owners’ profits. They will no longer be “dragged by chains or pushed by bulldozers to get them to slaughter”, as Wayne Pacelle, a senior officer of the Humane Society of the US, recently commented.
In addition to the threat of Mad Cow disease (and more recently bird flu), the lethal combination of inhumane, intensive (factory) farming and a variety of increasingly virulent infectious pathogens of animal origin, has created a huge public health menace. Factory farming is a system in which millions of cows, poultry, pigs and sheep each year are imprisoned in unspeakably cruel, crowded conditions in their own filth, forced to eat unnatural food, and then slaughtered under unsanitary and inhumane conditions. E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella, Campylobacter and Listeria infect as many as 81 million consumers annually, kill over 9,000, and cost billions of dollars in health care and lost wages, according to the General Accounting Office.
Factory farming is nothing less than a corporate cancer in our morally compromised society, and Mad Cow disease, bird flu and other food-borne illnesses are nature’s payback. Now is the time to take a stand against its inhumanity and health horrors. Let the foxes know you’re watching them.
Wield Your Consumer Power!
A final, formal version of the downer ban must still be approved. The USDA has proposed guidelines that are open to public comment for dealing with BSE. They stipulate “all non-ambulatory disabled cattle presented for slaughter be condemned.” To view the guidelines: USDA
Please write the USDA to make the ban permanent, and to include all downers - sheep, pigs and other livestock, as well as downed cattle. And ask them to add a requirement that all downed animals be humanely euthanized immediately, wherever they become downed. Write to: FSIS Docket Clerk, Docket 03-025IF, Room 102, Cotton Annex, 300 12th and C Street SW, Washington, DC 20250-3700; E-Mail: FSIS. Include Docket number in the subject line of your e-mail. Comment deadline is April 12, 2004.
For information on Farm Sanctuary’s No Downers Campaign: www.nodowners.org
The Organic Consumers Association demands that the US government adopt and enforce: 1) Mandatory testing for all cattle brought to slaughter, before they enter the food chain and 2) Ban the feeding of blood, manure, and slaughterhouse waste to animals. To sign their petition: www.organicconsumers.org/madcow.htm
For more on mad cow disease: www.mad-cow.org
To download the book “Mad Cow USA” visit:prwatch.org/books/madcow.html
For the story of Howard Lyman, the former cattle rancher who turned vegetarian (and his involvement in the Oprah Winfrey food disparagement trial): www.madcowboy.com
If you can’t imagine life without meat, Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) urges you to look for the Certified Humane label on beef as an added assurance of quality. For more information on where to find beef and animal products that carry their label: www.certifiedhumane.com
If you agree that eating animals is an increasingly foolhardy and unethical practice, visit www.vegetarianstarterkit.com and order a free vegetarian starter kit. Respect animals and the environment and also be good to yourself.
Ardeth Baxter is an animal rights advocate and ethical vegetarian and the guardian of four dogs and five cats. For more of her writing, visit: Associated Content
Factory farming isn’t just killing: It is negation, a complete denial of the animal as a living being with his or her own needs and nature. It is not the worst evil we can do, but it is the worst evil we can do to them. – Matthew Scully
I grew up in cattle country—that’s why I became a vegetarian. Meat stinks, for the animals, the environment, and your health. - K.D. Lang
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