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Cows, Cannibalism, Capitalism, and Coverup: The Politics and Economics of Mad Cow Disease

"The time bomb of the twentieth century equivalent of the bubonic plague ticks away."
BSE expert Richard Lacey

"So is it just coincidence,
Or are these deaths the first of many?
Will BSE, slow death, advance,
In humans and their progeny?
One thing is sure; our precious State
Won't tell us 'till it's much too late!"
"Mad Cows and Englishmen,"
C. Marsden

In 1985, the first signs of "Mad Cow Disease" appeared in Britain, triggering a health alarm that only became widely reported in the U.S. in 1996. For the first time, the American public heard about a disease fatal to cattle and human beings alike. In both Britain and the U.S., there has been a massive government coverup and disinformation campaign to bury this issue along with millions of animals and scores of people dying from newly emerging TSE ("transmissible spongiform encephalopathy") diseases.

The TSEs, generally are classified as infectious "prion diseases" which are fatal, infectious diseases of the brain (see insert). Beginning with kuru disease that appeared around the turn of the century as a result of cannibalistic practices in the Fore tribe in New Guinea, TSEs have emerged in human beings, sheep, cows, mink, pigs, chickens, cats, and numerous other species. Despite British and American government assurances to the contrary, TSEs are highly infectious and can easily jump species boundaries. In fact, the scientific consensus today is that a deadly TSE path has moved from sheep (scrapie) to cattle (BSE) to human beings (CJD). The vehicle of transmission is the rendering process that recycles the remains of one animal and feeds it to another. Cattle contract BSE when they are fed rendered sheep brains and spinal cords infected with "scrapie"; human beings contract CJD when they consume BSE-infected cattle. The unfortunate person who comes down with CJD can expect to experience insomnia, depression, confusion, memory loss, coordination problems, dementia, convulsions, paralysis, and, ultimately, a slow, agonizing, incurable death as the brain is eaten away.

What all TSEs seem to have in common is that they result from unnatural feeding practices, whether it be cannibalism or rendering. However unusual one's concept of a delicacy, eating the brains of another species or one's own does not seem to be a good idea. While human cannibalism seems no longer to be practiced anywhere in the world, the same, alas, cannot be said for rendering.

In England, as in the U.S. and other advanced industrial countries, rendering industries have emerged to process huge volumes of animal remains. Everyday in the U.S., renderers recycle 100 million pounds of heads, brains, stomachs, intestines, spinal cords, feet, hooves, tails, and blood. The rendering industries accomplish a two-fold purpose. First, they dispose of mountains of animal remains that otherwise would befoul the air (if burned) and poison the land (if buried). Second, they create animal by-products that can be used in items such as candle wax and lipstick (tallow) [see insert] and animal feed (bone meal).

The animals that are boiled and ground up for recycling include "downer" animals too sick to move from slaughterhouse shipping trucks, euthanized animals from animal shelters, and road kill. Clearly, rendering plants, slaughterhouses, farmers, and others are profiting from cheap cattle feed, but rendering industries are also the nasty necessity of large carnivorous societies. The contaminated products they pump back into the human food supply shows that when enough people bite into meat, meat bites back.

While England had used rendering processes for some time before the outbreak of Mad Cow Disease in the 1980s and 1990s (indeed, animal recycling dates back to ancient Egypt), rendering plants adopted new techniques around 1980 to mix more animal remains together, achieving greater efficiency and making more profit, as it spread scrapie and BSE infection from one animal into a deadly and disgusting soup. Moreover, the recent innovation of deboning machines to pluck as much flesh from the bones as possible allowed for highly infective spinal cord material to be blended into the meat.

While new rendering and deboning technologies allowed for contamination to spread from one place to another, the BSE outbreak in Britain is definitely not a "technological misfortune" as a 1990 Scientific American article argues, as if the technologies themselves were not developed and deployed by specific social (capitalist) interests. The BSE/CJD crisis, rather, is the inevitable result of (1) industry deregulation that gives rendered carte blanch; (2), the profit imperative that seeks to use every molecule of an animal corpse, diseased or not, and the cheapest possible feed sources; and (3) the propaganda barrage of meat and dairy industries that condition people to consume toxic animal products.

Profit and the Faustian Pact

In the search for ever-cheaper feed, factory farms have shifted from grass and hay to sewage sludge, newspapers, sawdust, wood chips, cardboard boxes, cement dust, waste water from nuclear power stations, maggot-infested grains, foods contaminated by roaches and rodents, and, last but not least, the bodies, bones, and organs of sheep and cattle. Rather than waste what is left of an animal after slaughter, why not sell the remains for a profit? Why not feed it back to the animals, and, ultimately, to people?

Where was the government? It was busy deregulating the rendering industries and slaughterhouse, while USDA officials and various university research scientists were working with animal industries to develop the new sources of feed.

Where were the people? In the dark, as usual, for behind their naive, trusting backs, the safety of their food (as safe as meat and dairy products can be) was given over to industries concerned only with their own profit -- rather than the welfare of animals, the safety of consumers, and the integrity of the environment -- and to a bureaucratic political structure whose regulations, or lack of regulations, reflect the interests of those industries.

Soybeans would have been the excellent and safe alternative to rendered protein, but British farmers didn't grow them much, and it would have cost them around $ 1,500 extra a year. Not much to pay for the benefit of the animals and human beings, but apparently too much for a bottom line mentality and some financially challenged farmers.

Of course, the costs proved far greater down the line, once British farmers had to destroy their cattle and faced declining consumer confidence in their products. But many of the farmers overcame this problem by selling their cattle to the European black market, and by funneling illegal cattle corpses into pig and chicken feed at home. Potential BSE cattle, in other words, made their way to consumers despite the legal ban, a fact which provides a lesson in the inadequacy of laws insufficiently protected by regulating institutions.

An easy solution to the economic costs of soybeans and infected cattle would have been full government compensation. For years, however, the British government refused to recognize the dangers of rendered feed and, once they did, they only offered to pay half the cost of soybeans to the farmers, thereby insuring that most would not comply with the ban on exporting cattle. The government later acquiesced to full payment, but it was too little, too late.

The State To the Rescue

If British farmers are culpable and broke the law, the British government was absolutely criminal in its behavior during the BSE/CJD crisis. At every point, the government corrupted evidence and concealed facts. British Parliament has mortgaged potentially hundreds of thousands of lives to protect its own public image and the profits of the beef industries. Not wanting an economic crisis to undermine the country's economy -- the estimated cost of replacing six million infected cattle was 30 billion pounds -- and taint its own credibility, the British government took whatever steps were necessary to prevent a crash of the beef industry and to prevent the public from getting the facts.

Using bogus scientific data and wrong assumptions, the government issued false pronouncements about the safety of meat. Uninformed by the views of any BSE experts, the 1989 Southwood Report found no evidence that TSEs could jump species, or that BSE could spread to human beings, and it confidently announced that cattle, rather than human beings, would be a "dead-end host." With arrogant confidence, the committee concluded it is "most unlikely that BSE will have any implications for human health." Ominously, the report also stated, "if our assessment of these likelihoods [of possible human infection] are incorrect, the implications would be extremely serious."

In the meantime, cases of BSE rose dramatically, climbing to 10,000 cases by April 1990, TSEs were quickly spreading to other species, and human beings were contracting CJD. In response, London schools refused the nation's beef, the European Union banned British beef exports, and England began the slaughter of over a million cows.

When the British government finally took the crisis seriously, it was too little, too late. The ban on offal, for example, was a meaningless gesture, since BSE infection spreads through the muscle tissues and bloodstream of cattle. By the end of August, 1994, BSE cases exceeded 137,000, over six times the number the South Committee predicted as a "worst case scenario."

The soaring rates of infection were treated more as a publicity problem than a major public health crisis. The government's most notorious propaganda ploy came in 1990, when Minister of Agriculture John Gummer (force)fed his daughter a hamburger in front of live television cameras and assured the public British beef was safe. "It's delicious," he said, as he shilled his daughter's safety for the sake of an image few found credible. As 15 year old Vicky Rimmer lay dying of CJD, a government doctor asked her mother not to publicize the case so that the economy would not be damaged. After Vicky's death, Prime Minister John Major wrote to her mother, "I should make it clear that humans do not get `mad cow disease'."

In the spirit of the "Veggie Libel" or "food disparagement" laws that operate here in thirteen states, prohibiting any questions regarding the safety of agricultural products, British officials tried to intimidate and silence their critics. They attempted to lock up all scientific data, while threatening researchers with prosecution if they released any information to the public. Clearly, they had something to hide.

BSE in the USA

As of December 1998, there are 28 confirmed cases of nvCJD in Britain, many of them young people and farmers. Over 170,000 cows have been infected and 1,200 still die a month. Britain destroyed 2.6 million cattle suspected of harboring BSE, and the European Union just lifted the ban on British beef exports.

Seemingly, the situation in the U.S. is much better, since no cases of nvCJD have been detected. Yet every factor that caused BSE in Britain has also been present in the U.S.: American sheep have been infected with scrapie since 1947, and both cattle and scrapie-infected sheep remains have been routinely rendered and fed to cattle and other animals.

Industry and government officials are quick to claim that we stopped importing British beef before the BSE crisis, and to argue that to date there are no proven cases of BSE-infected cows in the U.S. But the facts suggest that we have an undiagnosed BSE/CJD crisis in this country. Here's why.

First, between 1981 and 1989, during the BSE outbreak in Britain, 499 cattle were imported from the U.K., of which 341 died, most rendered with no record of their distribution. Between 1984-1985, 12 additional tons of animal products were imported from Britain.

Second, there have already been outbreaks of TSE (transmissible spongiform encephalopathy) in other animals fed BSE-infected meat. This was evident, for example, in a 1986 epidemic on a Wisconsin farm where mink were fed downer cows. Since 1986, twelve different species have becomes infected with a TSE through BSE-laced feed. In 1991, the USDA issued an internal report revealing that staff scientists believed "that a spongiform encephalopathy agent is present in the U.S. cattle population." If BSE agents have infected mink and other species, there is no reason to believe they have not also infected human beings, since the fatal prion disease has no respect for species boundaries.

Third, BSE infected cattle may be asymptomatic and killed before mature signs of the disease appear, but nevertheless enter the human food supply. BSE contamination is promoted by the stun gun, which splatters brain tissue into the animal's bloodstream, and the new deboning technologies -- Advanced Meat Recovery systems -- that blend infective spinal cords into the meat.

Fourth, it is believed that there are different strains of scrapie and BSE. If this is the case, then a BSE epidemic in the U.S. might not take the form of "mad" cows staggering around with spongy holes in their brains, but rather "downer" cows that simply collapse and die. 100,000 American cattle succumb to Downer Cow Syndrome every year, and they are routinely recycled as protein feed for hogs, sheep, and other cattle, or directly routed to the human dinner plate.

Thus, the assurances of the beef industry and USDA that there have been no known cases of BSE-infected cows begs the question of what strain might be present in the American food supply. The USDA claims to test downer cows for signs of BSE disease, but they only examine a small percentage of the millions killed each year. As of June 30, 1997, only 6,041 of the 100 million cattle in the U.S. were inspected.

In June 1997, a full year after the British government had finally conceded that BSE can infect and kill human beings, the FDA issued a ban on feeding ruminant animals to each other. This measure, however, does not forbid the use of blood products of any species, feeding ruminant animals (such as sheep and cattle) to non-ruminant animals (such as chickens and pigs), or feeding non-ruminant back to ruminant animals and to one another (there is now evidence of "mad pigs" suffering from central nervous system disorders). Against the protests of the World Health Organization, the U.S. government therefore finds it acceptable that TSE-infected by-products remain in the animal and human food supply. While these lapses defy logic, in the short-sighted vision of commerce they make perfect sense.

Business and Government: Partners in Crime

Like their British counterparts the USDA and FDA ignored and suppressed evidence about the dangers of mad cow disease, disseminated misinformation, and falsely assured the public there is no cause for alarm. Tethered to the deep pockets of the meat and dairy industries, the USDA and FDA have been hesitant to propose bans on rendering for fear that they "could pose major problems" (1991 internal USDA document) for the profits of the $30 billion-a-year pork industry and $60 billion-a-year beef industry. All the while, the various branches of the U.S. meat industry -- from sheep and feed to rendering and pharmaceutical companies -- rejected timid voluntary bans and tepid regulation proposals as too expensive (!), while denying the risks of rendering and denouncing their critics as crackpots.

In many ways, the government is responsible for the current situation, since it was the deregulation measures of the Reagan era that gave the meat and rendering industries the green light to ignore any and all safety standards, including the rescinding of USDA attempts to eradicate scrapie, a policy that immediately led to ever higher levels of scrapie-infected sheep being fed to cattle and other animals. Such results are to be expected when the job of the USDA and FDA is both to regulate food safety and to promote consumption of meat and diary products (and they clearly excel only in the latter task).

The strategy of many industry and government officials has been skepticism in the wrong direction, claiming that there is no "absolute proof" of a link between BSE and CJD, using arguments similar to the tobacco industries in their denial of a link between smoking and cancer. Perversely, the burden of proof rests on activists needing to demonstrate harm to the public after the fact, rather than corporations having to demonstrate their products are safe before they enter the market. As the industries and their lackeys drag their feet, demanding evidence that the earth is round, a massive and quite possibly tragic experiment is being carried out on hundreds of millions of Americans. The growing consensus is that we have more than enough scientific evidence for taking decisive action against rendering practices. As CJD expert John Collinge argues, "In fact the link [between BSE and CJD] is very clearly established."

The Portent of Plague

There is no doubt that in U.S. already has far more CJD than we realize, and that it is seriously underdiagnosed. Consider the following:

*** In the period between 1979 and 1990, CJD was listed on the death certificates of 2,614 people in the U.S. and it is possible that a BSE agent is the cause of many of these deaths, only about 10% of which are hereditary.

*** CJD fatalities often are not recorded on death certificates, since doctors tend to refuse autopsies of suspected CJD victims.

*** It is easy to misdiagnose CJD as Alzheimer's disease, the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S., currently afflicting two to three million people. The symptoms of the two diseases are similar, and the victims' brains have the same spongy appearance, suggesting to scientists like Stanley Prusiner that Alzheimer's is really a prion disease. 1989 autopsy studies done at the University of Pittsburgh and Yale University showed, respectively, that 5.5% and 13% of Alzheimer patients actually were victims of CJD. As a Consumers Union report to the USDA stated, "Since there are over 4 million cases of Alzheimer's disease currently in the United States, if even a small percentage of them turned out to CJD, there could be a hidden CJD epidemic."

*** Similarly, an informal survey of neuropathologists found that 2-12% of all dementias were actually CJD, a result corroborated by a 1989 University of Pennsylvania study which identified 5% of misdiagnosed dementia patients were dying from CJD.


Since the BSE epidemic first surfaced in Britain in 1986, and because it can take as long as 30 years for CJD for incubate, we may not see the potential CJD epidemic peak until around 2015. While some scientists are predicting a few dozen more cases, others like Collinge are warning of a possible new plague or black death of "biblical proportions," with anywhere from two to five hundred thousand human deaths per year.

What is needed, minimally, is a total ban on the use of any rendered protein feed for any animal, whether for cattle, hogs, chickens, or cats and dogs. This ban already exists in Britain, but not yet in the U.S. In other words, it is now safer to eat meat in Britain than in the U.S. The meat industry could use soybean protein for animal feed, but this would raise two additional problems: it would cost the industry more (a price they should be forced to pay even they have to pass it along to the consumer), and it would demand the disposal of millions of tons of animal waste left over from meat processing (which can only be alleviated through less consumption of meat).

Clearly one way to avoid the very real dangers of CJD is to become a vegetarian. As BSE expert Richard Lacey writes, "the simple and safest answer of course is to stop eating animals." Even then, however, is one completely safe? CJD can be contracted through BSE-infected pharmaceutical products. Three dozen marketed drugs are derived from cattle tissue and organs, and hundreds more contain bovine blood. There are also various diet and energy supplements made from raw cow organs and glands that promise everything but a case of CJD. One can also contract CJD through infected human blood, growth hormone therapy, bone meal in flower feed, medical procedures and contaminated instruments (such as dental tools), and gelatin products (found in nearly all herbal and vitamin capsules). Carleton Gajdusek, who won a Nobel Prize for his research into the mysterious kuru disease, claims that even milk products cannot be ruled out as carriers of BSE.

The crisis facing us today is not only a health crisis, but a crisis in democracy, whereby a corrupt alliance of economic and political elites pursue the profit imperative over any moral imperative. It is a sick society that criminalizes the concerns of food safety activists like Howard Lyman, while honoring the rights of villains to destroy life.

As the unethical practices of the tobacco industries have recently come under heavy critical scrutiny, we are beginning to see a similar spotlight thrown on the meat and dairy industries. But we cannot depend on the state to end their Caligulan tyranny; every person that becomes a vegan drives a nail into their beckoning coffins.

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