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Recap on Mad Cows and

the World at Large

Bina Robinson

Other than simply corporate profiteering, I think this crisis shows to what length governments will go to prevent financial harm to powerful lobbies in general, and in doing so risk immeasurable harm to those they claim to represent.          -       Michael Greger, MD

As long as our affairs seem to be proceeding in a normal manner, it seems to be a trait of human nature to ignore warnings of impending disasters until we have reached the very brink and the land is giving way beneath our feet at which point it may be too late for remedial action to be effective.


We waited until many of our rivers had become toxic sewers before we began the laborious process, still underway, of cleaning them up.  We have barely even begun to address the even larger problem that the seas can no longer handle the toxins we pour into them.  The ozone holes have grown to oceanic proportions, glaciers are melting and large chunks of ice are breaking off Antarctica, but the US, the biggest emitter of all, is still quibbling about reducing its carbon emissions and trying to do as little as other countries will allow.  We have taken steps to conserve the precious top soil that supports all life on this planet, but most of the soil had wound up at the bottom of the sea before we started to think about coping with this problem, and the loss continues.  Rainforests, which have such an important effect on soil and climate are still being cleared for a few years of livestock grazing, following the slash-and-burn clearing by expanding human populations, turning these once lush forests into deserts as happened long ago in the Sahara. 


Desertification is to a large degree directly related to livestock grazing which is in turn directly related to the human appetite for the flesh of other animals.  The methane exhalations of cows also contribute significantly to global warming. 


Scholarly voices warning of impending disasters have been overwhelmed by the interests and momentum of business as usual.  Ironically, more doctors and nutritionists are beginning to warn us that eating meat is bad for our health, but meat consumption continues to soar for those who can afford it.


The latest warning has come in the form of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, aka "mad cow" disease), but already the British, whose officials continued to proclaim the safety of British beef in the face of strong evidence to the contrary, show signs of becoming even less concerned about the safety of eating beef as more Brits (88 to date) succumb to a new variant of Creuzfeldt Jakob disease, designated as vCJD or nvCJD depending on which journal you are reading.  The variant appears to have evolved from BSE, the bovine form of this devastating disease that destroys the brain.


A European Union poll in December found that only about 10% of Brits were concerned about the safety of eating beef, however, compared to about 65% of Germans, 30% of Italians and lesser numbers of Dutch, French and Spanish in that order.


The disease appears to have spread because action to eliminate the agent spreading the disease has not been drastic enough.  True, you can't get much more drastic than killing and incinerating almost four million cows as Britain did, but the practice of including rendered animal remains in feed for living animals, thought to be the instigator of vCJD, was not properly addressed.  Although Brits eventually banned feeding ground up animals to all livestock, they continued to incorporate this possibly infectious material in animal feed for export, which is thought to be the reason for the recent escalation of BSE in other countries.


Although the US eventually got around to banning animal bits in feed for ungulates (cows, sheep and goats), it still permits this bone meal in feed for other animals, notably pigs and chickens.  Nor is there any prohibition against incorporating pig and chicken manure in feed intended for cows, which, given the virtual indestructibility of the prion thought to cause vCJD, could recycle the disease along with manure.


Speaking of manure and dead animal remains, our high rate of meat consumption creates such a plethora of these commodities that they present a pollution problem.  Up to a point, they are valuable  fertilizer, but feedlots and pig and chicken factories produce such a high volume in a limited area that run-off into streams and seepage into underground aquifers has to be dealt with.  How more efficiently than to keep recycling these wastes through farm animals by recycling them into feed?  Efficiency and recycling are great for keeping costs down, preventing pollution and saving landfill space, but they have serious limits when they interfere with animal (including human) and environmental health.


Like British officials when BSE was first getting established in their cows, American officials are still making reassuring noises despite the tinkling of alarm bells in the background.  Transmissible encephalopathies (TSEs) have already been identified in wild deer and elk in Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska as well as on private elk farms.  Two deer hunters and one venison-eater have contracted CJD.  No definitive link to the wild ungulates' chronic wasting disease has been established, but all were unusually young to be struck by CJD. 

Eleven people who ate squirrel brains in Kentucky have died from CJD.  Mink on a Wisconsin fur farm, who were fed exclusively on downer (too sick to stand up) cows,

were wiped out with mink TSE.  Although tests  conducted on downers for the disease have been negative, the fact that young adults have started succumbing to a brain wasting disease that typically strikes people over 60, suggests  that another variant CJD may be present in the US. 


Two studies, conducted by Yale University and University of Pennsylvania scientists found that 14% and 6% of the Alzheimer's victims they tested had actually succumbed to CJD.  These were small studies involving only 46 patients in the case of the Yale study, but they suggest that the incidence of CJD may be much higher than the reported ratio of one per million of the population.


The numbers of CJD and vCJD cases are too low, even in England, to be classified as a wide-scale human disaster (but not for cows!).  So people will continue to eat cows until we are on the brink of a major epidemic --should that come to pass.  It is sad that this is so because ending meat consumption could save a lot of people from heart attacks and strokes and help prevent pollution, soil loss, and global warming.

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The Civil Abolitionist

Spring 2000-2001