December 23, 2003, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) confirmed the first known case of mad cow disease in the United States. While many people remember the scores of human deaths and millions of animal deaths caused by a mad cow outbreak in the United Kingdom, few people realize that American consumers are at risk—not only from eating beef, but also from eating chicken, turkey, and pork, as well.
The Unenforced Feed “Ban”
The USDA, headed by former beef industry lobbyist Ann Veneman, claims the 1997 ban on feeding ruminants (cattle and sheep) to other ruminants should be enough to protect U.S. consumers from the risk of mad cow disease. However, a 2001 investigation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported that literally hundreds of feed suppliers violated the ban and found that at least 1,200 feed suppliers had not even been identified nor inspected. What action did the FDA take when learning that hundreds of American feed suppliers were not in compliance with the ban that was to keep mad cow disease risk low in the United States? Virtually nothing. The FDA has done little to enforce the ban, even when it knows a supplier is violating it.
In 2002, the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, issued a report on the U.S. mad cow disease risk, stating:
FDA did not take prompt enforcement action to compel firms to comply with the feed ban. When we began this study, in April 2001, the only enforcement action FDA had taken was to issue two warning letters in 1999. … However, since inspections began in 1997, FDA has reported hundreds of firms out of compliance—most often for failure to meet requirements to label feed that contained prohibited proteins in cattle feed. … We found several instances in which firms were out of compliance but had not been reinspected for a year or more—and in some cases 2 years. …
FDA has no clear enforcement strategy for dealing with firms that do not obey the feed ban, and it does not know what, if any, enforcement actions the states may be taking.
(General Accounting Office report GAO-02-183, “Mad Cow Disease: Improvements in the Animal Feed Ban and Other Regulatory Areas Would Strengthen U.S. Prevention Efforts,” January 2002, pages 25 and 40.
Should the USDA Have Known?
Dr. Stanley Prusiner, the Nobel Prize-winning neurologist who discovered prions, the proteins which cause mad cow disease, states that he told former beef industry lobbyist and current USDA secretary Ann Veneman that “it was just a matter of time” before mad cow disease surfaced in the United States. Dr. Prusiner added that the USDA had been “willfully blind to the threat.”
According to the New York Times, “The only reason mad cow disease had not been found here, he said, is that the department’s animal inspection agency was testing too few animals.”
(Sandra Blakeslee, “Expert Warned That Mad Cow Was Imminent,” New York Times, December 25, 2003. http://www.nytimes.com/2003/12/25/national/25WARN.html)
The Downed Animal Debate
The dairy cow infected with mad cow disease in Washington state was a “downer”—an animal too sick to even walk off the truck transporting her to slaughter. She, like other “downed animals” who are so diseased or injured to even walk, was not to be humanely euthanized. She was to be dragged to her slaughter, showing just how little the meat industry cares about animal welfare and human health.
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) has pioneered so-far unsuccessful efforts for two years in Congress to keep downed animal meat out of American mouths. In an Associated Press article, Rep. Ackerman stated “I said on the floor of the House that you will rue the day that because of the greed of the industry to make a few extra pennies from 130,000 head, the industry would sacrifice the safety of the American people.”
Mark Sherman, Associated Press article, “Mad cow case may give new life to meat legislation,” Dec. 25, 2003.
A Wall Street Journal article that appeared six months before the recent announcement that mad cow disease has struck in the United States reports:
Aren’t animals in this country tested for mad cow? The U.S. tests far fewer animals than do many countries. Last year, 20,000 U.S. cattle were tested, three times more than the previous year. But in Europe, they test more than 20,000 animals a day. Japan tests every bovine that enters the food supply. U.S. officials note testing here far exceeds standards required for a country where mad cow has never been found. Critics contend it isn’t enough. “You can’t find what you’re not looking hard enough for,” says Michael Greger, BSE coordinator for the Organic Consumers Association.
Tara Parker-Pope, “Canadian Mad Cow Discovery Exposes U.S. Beef Industry’s 'Dirty Little Secret,’” Wall Street Journal, May 27, 2003.
Not Just Brains and Spinal Cords
The USDA and the beef industry claim that prions, the infectious agents responsible for mad cow disease, can only be found in brains and spinal cords. However, in November 2003, the New England Journal of Medicine reported on Swiss researchers who found deadly prions in 8 out of the 32 muscle samples taken from human victims of Creutzfeld-Jakob disease (CJD), a mad cow-like disease, on autopsy. The authors declare that the prions were “prevalent in skeletal muscle tissue … .”
Glatzel M. Abela E. Maissen M. Aguzzi A. Extraneural pathologic prion protein in sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. New England Journal of Medicine. 349(19):1812-20, 2003 Nov 6.
Not Just Cows
It is both legal and standard in the United States to feed chickens to other chickens and pigs to other pigs, forcing these animals to become cannibals. It is also legal and standard to feed cattle, even sick or “downed” cattle, to poultry and pigs. These animals and their manure can be—and are—then ground up and fed back to cattle.
The rampant cruelty endured by all farmed animals—chickens, turkeys, pigs, sheep, cows, and others raised for food—along with lack of government regulation, has set the stage for mad cow disease to surface in the United States. And because the incubation period for CJD, the human variant of mad cow disease, is so long, possibly decades, there is no telling how many Americans may be infected.
While eating chickens, turkeys, pigs, cattle, and other animals increases our risk of health problems like heart disease, obesity, and diabetes, we should not ignore the risk of mad cow disease and its human variant CJD, either.
Mad cow disease is only one reason among many to eat vegetarian fare. Being vegetarian helps prevent animal abuse and environmental degradation, and is also a great way to help safeguard our health.
Click here for more extensive information from Michael Greger, M.D., on how the USDA is misleading the American public about mad cow disease.
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