Mad Cows, Scientists & Lawmakers
How many cows are infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (aka Mad Cow Disease or BSE for short) in America?
Well, the USDA and the beef producers would like you to believe there are none. The claim is that they have put protocols on animal feed (thankfully they’ve stopped feeding ground up cows to cows), slaughter (cows that are too sick to walk on their own into the abattoir are now unfit for human consumption) and processing (brains and spinal cords are removed from carcasses and considered high risk materials).
These steps have helped to reduce the already low risk of this disease.
Except they don’t really know for sure, because the US doesn’t require BSE testing like some other countries. And the USDA has even actively thwarted private producers from testing for BSE in the past. So lo and behold, what shows up in California last week? A cow with BSE.
Now this is no reason to panic, however it is a good reminder to be informed about the disease, its effects on people, and the shenanigans of our regulators. To be fair, they say that this cow was never in danger of getting into the food supply. They also are saying that it’s some different form of the disease. As this case unfolds, it will be interesting to learn how this cow contracted the disease.
Eating contaminated meat is no joke.
Nasty bacteria can be neutralized by cooking your hamburger to death. FTLB (aka Pink Slime) may be highly processed and unappetizing, but I don’t think it’s particularly unsafe. BSE is believed to be the cause of variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, and if you get that you die.
The most unsettling part is that you can have vCJD now and not even know it because the incubation period can be decades long. Yes, that means you could have some deadly incurable disease germinating inside of you from that sketchy burger you ate twenty years ago.
Perhaps you can see why some countries take this very seriously, like South Korea for example. They are one of those otherwise civilized nations that has just suspended US beef imports on the heels of this news. Because in their country they test cows for BSE before they go into the food supply.
We don’t. Okay, we effectively don’t. 110 cows tested out of 100,000 cows slaughtered (per day) leaves some pretty big holes in the net.
Some say the concern is cost. It would be too expensive to do. But proponents say consumers could foot the bill by sucking up a whopping ten cents per pound premium for tested beef. But the test isn’t perfect. BSE is a tricky disease and false negatives are common. So tested beef cannot truly claim to be BSE free.
However, in a very persuasive letter from the Senior Scientist of Senior of Advocacy and Public Policy for the Consumers Union to the Secretary of Agriculture at the USDA is the following data point in support of testing:
In the European Union, testing of healthy cattle approved for slaughter turned up over 1,100 of cases of BSE between 2001 and 2006 (http://ec.europa.eu/food/food/biosafety/bse/mthly_cml_reps_bse2001_en.pdf) Thus, these rapid tests are useful for screening cattle at slaughter and can pick up a significant number of cases of BSE that would otherwise not be detected and have gone into the food and feed chains.
Now remember how I said not to panic? It’s true. Despite all of this my back-of-the-napkin calculations show that the total global deaths from confirmed cases of vCJD are roughly equivalent to 90 minutes of US traffic fatalities. This isn’t a reason to stop eating beef. It is, however, a reason to be pissed at the USDA for being more concerned about protecting the US beef producers than the health of taxpayers.
It is also a good reason to remember the importance of knowing where your food comes from. Good meat isn’t cheap. And cheap meat is cheap for a reason. I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes. But when the next case of BSE shows up somewhere in America, hopefully you won’t be surprised. It’s out there.
This is our fourth sighting of it domestically. I fully expect there to be more in the future. Why? Well consider this blurb from the ABC News report on this latest incident:
Bovine protein is routinely fed to egg-laying chickens, and the “litter” from those chickens — chicken excrement and the feed that spills onto the floor — is collected and rendered back into cattle feed. Neurodegenerative researchers such as UC San Francisco’s Dr. Stanley Prusiner, who received the 1997 Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering prions — the protein associated with BSE — has warned that the US should ban poultry waste in cattle feed.
But there are vastly more lottery winners than there are victims of vCJD, and I’ve never met any of them. So let’s just hope our luck holds out.