This article first appeared in the January 2001 edition of VegNews, the monthly vegetarian newspaper with information on living a cruelty-free and healthy lifestyle.
Reprinted by permission
Mad cow disease (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy-BSE) has escaped from England and now is causing panic throughout Europe. The consumption of beef has fallen as much as eighty percent in some areas of France. In Germany, Chancellor Gerhard Schroder has suggested banning factory farms; his wife, Doris, has stated in the press that "something has to be done." Housewives across Europe are wondering what they can safely feed their families.
The cattle industry has portrayed this problem for many years as being confined to the English island and that, therefore, no one else should worry. Their view has proven to be dangerously shortsighted, and now all countries are desperately rethinking food safety. This disease, with a human incubation period of ten to forty years, makes the plague look like child’s play.
A small vocal minority has been warning for years that the transfer of this animal disease to humans - in the form of a new variety of Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease (nvCJD) - could lead to massive human suffering and deaths. England states today that there is a 99 percent certainty that nvCJD comes from cows with BSE. Relatives of victims in France who have died of nvCJD are suing the government for failure to take adequate measures against BSE and for covering up the extent of the French epidemic. CJD in all forms is 100 percent fatal.
BSE was first identified in England in 1986. By 1990 it was classified as an epidemic, and by 1996 over 1000 cows a week were confirmed with the disease. In an attempt to control the problem, the English government destroyed over 4.5 million cattle and incinerated them at a temperature of 1100 degrees centigrade. The resulting ash is still considered infectious and is stored in WWII blimp hangers. In December 2000, the European Union declared that all animals of thirty months of age must either test free of BSE or be destroyed. At $25 per head, it will cost an estimated $375 million to test the entire EU herd. Moreover, experts estimate that up to three million infected cattle will need to be destroyed at an additional estimated cost of about $3.5 billion.
Mad cow disease has been shown to have some very disturbing properties. It can be passed from the mother to the fetus in the womb; it can be passed from a bull to the cow through the sperm. It can be passed from one species to another quite freely by transfusion of contaminated blood or consumption of infected material. It takes an amount of infected material about the size of a peppercorn to infect an animal. Tests have shown the disease to remain active when buried in the soil for years. BSE is extremely resistant to high temperatures; it is unaffected by radiation, laboratory solvents, and bleaches. In other words, it appears to be virtually indestructible.
Cases of BSE have been confirmed in: England (177,288), Ireland (522), Portugal (462), Spain (2), France (124), Belgium (10), Switzerland (357), Germany (6), Canada (1), Netherlands (6), Denmark (2), Italy (2), Luxembourg (1), and in the Azores. It can be assumed it’s only a matter of time before all countries that have engaged in the practice of feeding animal protein back to cattle will join the list of problem nations.
An infected cow shows the symptoms of BSE four to seven years after the time of infection. In the United States, the average age of cattle ranges from four to five years. This could be a major reason why we haven’t confirmed the disease yet, but it doesn’t mean it’s not here.
The family of spongiform diseases of which BSE is a member is called transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE). The United States has confirmed several TSE diseases. In mink it is called transmissible mink encephalopathy (TME); in sheep, Scrapie; in deer and elk, Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). All of these are found in North America.
In 1998, the State of Colorado required successful hunters to remove the head of all large game and send it to the State for testing. Five percent of the heads received tested positive for the spongiform disease, chronic wasting disease (CWD). Upon completion of the test, the State failed to relay the deadly information to the hunters even though they had their addresses. Dr. Mike Miller, a veterinarian at the Colorado Department of Wildlife said, "We don’t think the problem is a big deal." Instead, the State of Colorado is now advising hunters to wear rubber gloves, particularly when cutting brain and nerve tissue where the infectious material is apparently concentrated. In 1999, Wyoming conducted a test on their deer herd in which fifteen percent tested positive for CWD. Montana was forced to destroy a herd of elk when it showed symptoms of CWD.
Thirty-nine states in the U.S. have confirmed cases of scrapie in their sheep herds. In Vermont, a farmer imported milking sheep from Belgium to produce cheese. The United States Department of Agriculture tested those sheep and reported they were incubating mad cow disease (BSE). This touched off a firestorm of legal activity when the USDA wanted to destroy the entire herd. While scrapie in U.S sheep was common, this was the first time sheep were found carrying the cow form of encephalopathy.
The lesson we should have learned from England is that what the animals are fed makes all the difference. Although England banned the practice of feeding ruminates to ruminates – cows, sheep and goats back to cows, sheep and goats - as we have done in the U.S., the farmers and feed manufactures continued to violate the regulations. It was only when England banned the feeding of all animals back to animals that they able to slow the amplification of mad cow disease.
Today in England, no animal over thirty months of age is allowed into the food supply. All brain, spinal cord and organ material is excluded from sale to consumers and no meat is served on the bone any longer. Moreover, Britain has now called for country of origin labels so consumers will know where their meat originates.
Unfortunately, it is not only what we eat that is of concern. There are the products like animal feed and fertilizer that are made from blood meal, meat meal, and bone meal. Gel caps and marshmallows are made from gelatin, which is processed hoofs, hide, and horns.
Consumers in Germany are now being told not to eat sausages because many of the most infected parts of the animal are used in their production. Many cosmetics as well as other products we use daily are made from rendered animal fat. Laboratory tests have shown these products can pass the infectious BSE agent from one animal to another, and humans are likewise susceptible.
In England, over eighty people have died from nvCJD and in France there have been two deaths to date. The French government estimates between five to ten percent of their population have been exposed to infected meat in the last ten years. Since this disease incubates for ten to forty years in humans, these numbers may foretell a drastic future. Today, most nations will not allow anyone who has recently spent six months in England to donate blood. An English review of surgical instruments used in tonsillectomies found half infected with BSE. There has been a call for replacement of all surgical instruments nation-wide that could cost over a billion pounds.
In 1996 on the Oprah Winfrey Show, I voiced my concern over our practice of feeding cows back to cows in the U. S. Members of the cattle industry sued me along with Oprah and her production company, Harpo, for violating the Food Disparagement Act of Texas. We won after a six-week trial in Federal District Court in Amarillo, Texas. The cattlemen were unsatisfied with the outcome so they appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. There we won a unanimous decision after waiting almost a year. The Court’s opinion stated that I had told the truth and that the truth was not actionable. The cattlemen, still dissatisfied, asked for a rehearing that was denied. Although I wish that were the end of the matter, over one hundred other cattlemen filed the same suit in State Court. I’m not a resident of Texas so I have the right to move the case from State Court to Federal Court, which I did, and the cattlemen have also appealed that action. For over four years I have had to retain lawyers to defend my right to tell the American people the truth about the way we are feeding our cattle and the potential threat that practice may pose. Today the legal morass continues.
I’m very concerned about the number of Americans being diagnosed with the dementia disease, Alzheimer’s. Since the late seventies the number of cases has increased dramatically. The symptoms of Alzheimer’s and nvCJD are very similar. Several studies in the U.S. have shown between five and fifteen percent of dementia diagnoses were in fact CJD. This could be a ticking time bomb waiting to explode.
The crisis in England has shown us some very useful control methods if we are courageous enough to implement them. First, we must stop feeding animals to animals. Second, we must restrict the use of animal products in our daily life style. If we do neither, we risk making the same mistakes the English have made and we risk achieving the same deadly results.
VegNews advisory board member Howard Lyman is a former cattle rancher, the author of Mad Cowboy, founder of Voice for a Viable Future, and president of EarthSave.