The presence of
the infectious agent in livestock is assured in perhaps half the countries
of the world, although only a fraction have admitted it (including
the UK, Ireland, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan). While desperately
denying the existence of mad cow disease on its own soil, America
continues to profit from the honesty of its affected trade partners.
This arrangement is quietly destroying the health of the nation, but
business is booming.
Are you familiar with CJD? Welcome to a living hell. Take a brief
walk with me while I tell you of the most horrifying disease known
-Dolly Campbell, whose husband died of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
It's a Mad,
Mad, Mad, Mad World
Every so often,
a plague comes along with the power to shape nations. Such a plague
is mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), which
first made international headlines in March 1996, when British authorities
and the World Health Organization were forced to admit that ten
human deaths from the apparently rare brain-wasting Creutzfeldt-Jakob
disease (CJD) were "likely" to be directly related to
eating tainted beef.
in transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs)-which includes
BSE and CJD-among livestock and people is now recognized as an expanding
worldwide plague. Tests in Europe, where most countries routinely
fed millions of recycled cattle corpses back to cows until the crisis
broke, have revealed many cases of BSE, in addition to the 177,000
confirmed in Britain, which has incinerated nearly five million
cows as a result. Consumption of British beef has plummeted; financial
losses have been catastrophic.
vector-tainted cattle feed containing the ground-up remains of cows
harboring infectious prions-has been shipped all over the world,
a million tons to Asia alone. In September 2001, Japan confirmed
the presence of mad cow disease within its borders, devastating
its domestic beef market almost overnight, while the world reacted
with another round of import bans.
how many people have contracted new-variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
(nvCJD) through contaminated beef and byproducts. Not only meat,
but many processed foods, drugs, vaccines, surgical instruments,
dietary supplements, and even cosmetics may carry this plague, spread
mainly through the forced cannibalism of millions of bovines. In
Britain and beyond, maternal transmission of nvCJD presages generations
of victims. There is no treatment or cure. Experimental tests for
the living recently have been developed, but there is no indication
of when they'll be available.
A Clever, Indestructible Protein
represent truth stranger than science fiction. Virtually indestructible,
they represent an entirely new class of pathogen. Not a living organism,
the abnormal version of a protein known as a prion is able to withstand
conditions which kill any other known pathogen, representing a biological
threat never before seen on Earth. With unique abilities to survive
temperatures upward of 1,100°F, jump species barriers, evade
the immune system, and replicate themselves in victims whose very
bodies remain infectious, these rogue proteins are sowing widespread
devastation among animals and humans. Even HIV is neutralized by
boiling water, but routine sterilization procedures are ineffective
against this misfolded molecule, which destroys brain tissue by
filling it with spongy holes.
The 1997 Nobel
Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to San Francisco scientist
Stanley Prusiner for his discovery of "prions-a new biological
principle of infection," even as others expressed incredulity
at an infectious agent containing no genetic material whatsoever.
Thought to replicate in the manner of crystals, abnormal prions
malform neighboring prions upon contact, causing them to "fold"
improperly and mutate their neighbors in a domino effect of devastation,
until the host develops vacuoles in the brain, loses nervous system
function, and dies. Unlike normal prions, mutants do not break down
when meat is digested. The immune system is not provoked to attack
the invader, because normal and rogue prions are almost chemically
implications for the planet and its human and animal inhabitants
are staggering. The number of vehicles which may harbor this hidden
killer reads like a shopping list of common products. Not even vegetarians
are immune: White sugar is bleached with cow bones, and McDonalds
French fries, advertised as prepared in "pure vegetable oil,"
are seasoned-like many products with "natural flavors"-with
Mad Deer, Sad People
In the Southwest,
an outbreak of chronic wasting disease, the TSE affecting deer,
elk, and other ungulates, is now raging, with five to 15 percent
of elk in areas of Colorado and Wyoming reportedly infected. The
case of Doug McEwen-a 30-year-old hunter who died of CJD in Utah
on March 28, 1999-starkly illustrates the tragedy surrounding the
illness. McEwen, who regularly ate deer meat, was diagnosed with
classic CJD although, like many of the British victims, his youth
might seem to indicate another, more virulent strain, as only one
percent of classic CJD patients develop symptoms at his age. McEwen's
situation was graphically reported by Mark Kennedy in the Ottawa
Citizen the day before he died:
Tracie McEwen reaches over to the dying man... As he moans softly,
she strokes his arm and kisses his forehead. "It's OK. Doug,
Doug exactly four years ago. She marked their anniversary by pouring
sparkling cider into cups, making a toast, and lovingly dropping
some into Doug's mouth....
It started slowly.
First, there was the memory loss and the inability to do simple
math, then the light tremors. Eventually came violent seizures as
well as unexplainable outbursts of emotion-hysterical laughter,
sometimes followed by uncontrollable crying. By late January, he
could no longer speak in sentences....
the worst thing I have seen," [Tracie McEwen] says. "I
wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy."
blood plasma donated by McEwen was cleared by the authorities and
distributed during his illness and after his death. For nearly two
years McEwen had donated blood plasma, which was processed by Bayer
into fractionated blood products in Clayton, North Carolina, then
shipped to 46 countries around the globe. "The scope of this
is breathtaking," Dr. Tom Pringle says of the decision to release
blood contaminated with CJD. "You've got a time bomb ticking
in millions and millions of people. And as they become donors, it
spreads further." Pringle is a molecular biologist and founder
of the astonishingly extensive Official Mad Cow Website <www.mad-cow.org>,
and his comments have appeared in mad cow articles in the New York
Of the infected
deer which almost certainly led to McEwen's death, Pringle is unequivocal:
"I think they have scrapie. Most cases trace back to Ft. Collins,
Colorado, at the Foothills Research Station, an experimental facility
which was contaminated," a contention shared by several other
CWD researchers. Wild animals might also contract the disease by
raiding contaminated feed meant for livestock.
State of Emergency
existence of mad cow disease is unconditionally denied by the American
authorities, the prevalence of TSEs in other farmed livestock has
been cause for two recent Declarations of Emergency by the USDA.
1, 2000, then-Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman proclaimed a
"Declaration of Emergency Because of Scrapie in the United
States," due to a clear epidemic:
Scrapie, a degenerative
and eventually fatal disease affecting the central nervous systems
of sheep and goats, is present in the United States. Scrapie is
a complicated disease because it often has an extremely long incubation
period without clinical signs of disease. Currently, scrapie-free
countries have an enormous competitive advantage over US sheep producers,
who are unable to certify that their flocks originated from a scrapie-free
country or region. Because importing countries are demanding that
imported sheep come from scrapie-free regions and sheep producers
in the United States are unable to make this certification, US producers
are finding themselves locked out of the international market, a
situation that is taking a serious financial toll on the US sheep
industry.... Therefore...I declare that there is an emergency that
threatens the sheep and goat industry of this country, and I authorize
the transfer and use of such funds as may be necessary from appropriations
or other funds available to the United States Department of Agriculture
to conduct a program to accelerate the eradication of scrapie from
the United States.
was followed by a "Declaration of Emergency Because of Chronic
Wasting Disease" issued by Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman,
effective September 21, 2001:
disease (CWD), a disease of deer and elk, is part of a group of
diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs),
a group that also includes scrapie and bovine spongiform encephalopathy
(BSE). While considered rare, the incidence of CWD is on the rise
among both wild and domestic cervids. The disease, which occurs
mostly in adult animals, is progressive and always fatal. The origin
and mode of transmission of CWD are unknown. The disease has become
of particular concern due to its fatal nature, lack of known prevention
or treatment, its impact on the farmed cervid industry, and its
possible transmissibility to cattle or other domestic livestock
mad-sheep analogue suspected of infecting British cattle with BSE,
has spread unchecked to 45 states.
On October 25,
2001, Reuters reported: "Companies that make amino acids used
in pharmaceuticals and vaccines should not use cattle and sheep
from mad cow-infected countries as a source, a US advisory panel
said Thursday.... Current manufacturing processes cannot guarantee
that prions, the infectious material thought to cause mad cow disease,
would not be transmitted from amino acids to the end product."
A Reuters article
published the next day, "FDA Urged to Consider Ban on Cow Brain
The US Food
and Drug Administration (FDA) may soon consider banning the sale
of any product containing cow brains or spinal tissue, whether made
abroad or here in the US.
to the FDA voted 18 to 1 on Friday in favor of urging the federal
agency to begin assessing the necessity and feasibility of passing
regulations to either ban or restrict the use of products containing
these tissues, due to the theoretical risk of "mad cow"
range from soup stock and sausage casings to cosmetics, drugs, medical
devices and dietary supplements....
But if the FDA
should follow its committee recommendation, there are unlikely to
be any immediate consequences. The FDA's rule-making process could
take months and even years to complete, while the agency reviews
the available data and upcoming studies.
The WSJ Checks
With the government
issuing emergency decrees for sheep, goats, deer, and elk in response
to widespread TSE infections among domestic and wild animals-and
with the FDA considering a ban of products, including those containing
domestic bovine nervous system tissue-it seems inevitable that mad
cows will rear their spastic heads, even as big business desperately
tries to bury the truth.
On August 29,
2001, none other than the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial,
"Moo Over, Mad Cow Cometh" by Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.,
which admitted the futility of postponing the inevitable:
single case of mad cow" has been the proud mantra of the US
beef industry since the disease was discovered in Britain 15 years
ago. Not finding a case, though, has been largely a function of
not looking especially hard.... Looking is often finding, so this
would seem to bode a consumer panic and economic disaster if mad
cow is as widely spread as many experts believe. The US cattle industry
long ago convinced itself that a single case would mean curtains
for its $3.6 billion in annual beef exports, not to mention a bruising
domestic whack as consumers defect to chicken, pork or-horrors-soy
the cattle lobby have spent a decade praying mad cow doesn't show
up here, despite knowing it must sooner or later. Though 36 million
head are slaughtered a year, the Agriculture Department has examined
all of 12,000 brains since 1990. The time has come to gear up a
real hunt for our first case, if only to get it over with.
CJD and nvCJD
CJD and BSE
are both TSEs, which are invariably fatal. But not every case involves
infection from contaminated material. Naturally occurring, or "sporadic,"
TSEs afflict humans, bovines, and many other animals at the rate
of one in a million. Sporadic CJD, which primarily affects the elderly,
can incubate for decades before leading to loss of coordination,
horrific mental breakdown, and death.
The 100 British
victims of nvCJD-which has a shorter incubation period than CJD-have
been mostly younger people between 13 and 40 years of age. "Health
officials say they've got mad cow under control, but millions of
unaware people may be infected," warned a Newsweek cover story
on March 12, 2001. "[O]nce a few cattle contracted it, 20th-century
farming practices guaranteed that millions more would follow. For
11 years...British exporters shipped the remains of BSE-infected
cows all over the world [to] more than 80 countries." The stakes
are extremely high. One infected animal, whose remains are rendered,
powdered, and mixed into feed, can infect thousands of other animals,
plus the thousands of people who eat them.
All the British
nvCJD victims express a genetic trait shared by 38 percent of the
British population and all bovines. Jun Tateishi, professor emeritus
of Japan's Kyushu University and an authority on prion study, explains:
"Basically, there are differences in genes...between humans
and animals. Humans have three types of [paired] gene structures:
methionine, valine, and a combined type. On the other hand, a cow
has only the methionine type," which apparently enables the
effective transmission of BSE prions to humans carrying the same
methionine pairing. "What we should note is that 91.6 percent
of Japanese have the methionine gene type. Compared to British people,
the rate is overwhelmingly high. I can't say so for sure yet, but
my opinion is that Japanese are about 2.5 times more likely to get
mad cow disease than British people." No test for this genetic
trait is available.
Over the last
decade the USDA has tested over 12,000 cow brains, looking for the
pathology seen in infected British cattle, and it continues to claim
that not a single BSE-infected cow has been found. The US Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which has refused to mandate
CJD as a reportable disease in the face of many petitions, similarly
asserts that only about 280 to 300 people a year die from it (about
one for each million Americans, the standard rate for the naturally
occurring variety), with no nvCJD detected in the US.
But what if
America has been harboring a different and stealthy strain of BSE
all along, with a corresponding variant of CJD, and neither were
being detected by current methodology? "I don't expect the
British strain of mad cow disease to be much of a problem here,"
says Dr. Pringle. "The main fear is that our own cattle may
carry a different strain of the disease that is distinct from the
British strain." TSEs are known to exist in numerous strains
within a single species; sheep scrapie has at least 20 variants.
speculates Pringle, "the top level of government itself does
not know-nor want to know-the scope of the epidemic. This is to
establish 'plausible deniability.'" It would appear the US
is also burying its head in the sand.
for epidemics of both BSE and CJD in America is persuasive:
1) In 1985,
Dr. Richard Marsh, a TSE researcher at the University of Wisconsin
investigating a mysterious outbreak of transmissible mink encephalopathy
(TME) in that state, found that the minks' diet consisted almost
exclusively of "downer" cows-animals too sick to stand.
In 1994, Marsh
showed that when the brains of infected cattle were fed to healthy
mink, they developed TME; healthy cattle inoculated with tissues
obtained from TME-infected mink duly developed BSE. These experiments
showed "the presence of a previously unrecognized scrapie-like
infection in cattle in the United States."
was different than that seen in Britain. Significantly, rather than
exhibiting overt mad cow symptoms (European cattle with BSE usually
act skittish and "crazy" before death), the US animals
simply collapsed. In 1990, cows in Texas experimentally inoculated
with American scrapie developed BSE, becoming lethargic and staggering
to their deaths, just like downer cows. Some states, such as New
York, don't send downer cows to the USDA for testing, leaving open
the possibility that BSE in thousands of suspect animals is going
Prionics, which manufactures Europe's leading BSE test: "A
study performed with Prionics-Check reveals that fallen stock...represent
BSE high-risk categories."
2) Leading scientists
aver that mad cows surely exist in the US. Dr. Clarence Gibbs-a
preeminent TSE researcher who chaired a World Health Organization
investigation into BSE and ran the laboratory of the National Institute
of Neurological Disorders and Stroke until his death-had no doubts
about domestic infection: "Do I believe BSE is here? Of course
And Dr. Stanley
Prusiner, who won the 1997 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discovery
of prions, expressed that contention to a congressional caucus in
May 1996. That June, an article in Food Chemical News stated, "After
more than two decades of research on prions, Stanley Prusiner of
the University of California at San Francisco suggested that mad-cow
disease must be present in US cows.... He said he agreed with [Richard
Marsh] who believes mad-cow disease was linked to US cows in the
million animals are slaughtered a year for consumption, and less
than 1,000 are tested a year-it's too low," says Pierluigi
Gambetti, the director of the CDC's National Prion Disease Pathology
Surveillance Center. "If you don't look, you don't find it.
Our testing is not on the cutting edge." Nearly one million
animals are tested by both France and Germany every year.
What would the
USDA do upon discovering a case of BSE? "Their first impulse
would be to suppress it," asserts Dr. Michael Hansen, a senior
research scientist at the Consumer Policy Institute of Consumers
Union (publisher of Consumer Reports) and one of the country's leading
food-safety experts. Of the government's TSE-detection program,
Hansen reiterates, "Their strategy might be, act like you're
looking, but really do a 'don't look, don't find.'"
As Pringle points
out: "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."
3) In spite
of the USDA's categorical denials, it's a scientific fact that one
in a million cows naturally develops BSE. With about 100 million
cattle in the US, that would mean approximately 100 mad cows exist
on American soil at any given time. Many likely collapse before
scheduled slaughter and are rendered into feed, with the potential
to infect thousands of other animals.
4) The best
evidence for widespread, hidden CJD is contained in a pair of revelatory
university studies. Hansen has repeatedly pointed to the evidence:
"A study at the University of Pittsburgh, in which autopsies
were done on 54 demented patients diagnosed as having probable or
possible Alzheimer's or some other dementia (but not CJD), found
three cases (or 5.5 percent) of CJD among the 54 studied. A Yale
study found that of 46 patients diagnosed with Alzheimer's, six
(or 13 percent) were CJD at autopsy. Since there are over two million
cases of Alzheimer's disease currently in the United States, if
even a small percentage of them turned out to be CJD, there could
be a hidden CJD epidemic."
figures indicate that tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of
Americans are currently infected with a preventable variant of CJD.
Since sporadic CJD occurs in only one in a million people, an infectious
source must exist.
The common practice
of feeding rendered protein supplements-the boiled-down, powdered
remains of slaughterhouse and other animal waste-to domestic animals
spread BSE in the UK. Surviving high heat and solvents, mutant prions
from each BSE-infected cow infected thousands of other bovines,
as huge batches of feed were mixed and fed back to cattle in a bovine
version of Soylent Green's forced cannibalism.
protein to ruminants (cud-chewing animals) was authoritatively banned
in the UK in 1989. Eight years later, in August 1997, the FDA tardily
issued weak regulations addressing this common practice. Consumers
Union's Hansen explained the US ban: "All they said is that
you've got to label it, 'Do not feed to cattle and other ruminants.'
Farmers can walk in a feed store and still buy it. Nobody asks,
'Are you feeding it to cattle or pigs?' They have to keep records
of where the material came from for one year, for a disease with
an average incubation period of five years. It's a joke. The way
the rule is written, you can take scrapie-infested sheep, CWD-infested
deer, and BSE-infested animals and legally put that in animal feed
and give it to pigs, chickens-anything but ruminants, as long as
it's labeled. That's outrageous." On top of that, USDA feed-rule
compliance among America's thousands of livestock farmers is virtually
impossible to effectively monitor or enforce.
Hansen noted in 1999, "The new thing is to feed calves spray-dried
bovine plasma. It's hardly processed, so you're not knocking down
the infectivity-and you can put it right in the feed."
But calves are
not the only hapless recipients; Hansen believes the industry is
likely feeding cows "a huge amount of bovine blood products.
Legally, you can take any blood product from cattle and feed it
to cows. I've been told that cows won't eat feed with more than
ten percent blood, because they can taste it, and that chickens
will eat feed with up to thirty-five percent blood." Blood
has been shown capable of containing infectious prions.
Around, Comes Around
In spite of
the successful initiative by the European Union to ban all animal
products in livestock feed, American animal agribusiness continues
to make widespread use of rendered protein and feed containing animal
feed regulations, livestock often eat one another's remains. After
inedible pig parts are rendered, they are often fed back to pigs,
cows, and chickens; cow parts are fed to chickens and pigs; and
pigs and chickens are still routinely fed rendered protein that
includes the remains of downer cows, which are most suspect for
repugnant, thousands of tons of fermented chicken manure are fed
to millions of US cows each year in a bizarre loop of inexpensive
husbandry. Hansen and Pringle believe that "cow to chicken
manure to cow" could turn out to be a BSE vector path; infectious
prions apparently survive ingestion and could plausibly make the
round-trip on this perverse journey.
As for the question
of whether fowl can contract TSEs from livestock, the issue has
"not really ever been investigated," says Pringle. "No
one wanted to know, because so much cattle bone meal is fed to chickens.
However, the chicken prion has a strong similarity to the mammalian
amyloidogenic region, so it is theoretically possible."
It remains possible
that all domestic animals may indeed be susceptible to TSE infection.
According to Hansen, the USDA has "functionally ignored the
potential TSE in pigs." Their very short factory-farm lifespan
of six to eight months might hide any symptoms of TSE, which usually
spends several years incubating in mammals. Dr. Paul Brown, a senior
investigator for the National Institutes of Health and the author
and coauthor of numerous TSE studies, also has indicated that poultry
and especially pigs could harbor TSEs and pass them on to humans.
"It's speculation," Brown has acknowledged, "but
I am perfectly serious."
Pigs that were
experimentally inoculated have developed BSE, and a suspected outbreak
of porcine spongiform encephalopathy occurred near Albany, New York,
in 1997. A 1973 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology
discovered that ten of 38 CJD patients had eaten hog brains.
and the USDA
the $150 billion-a-year cattle industry is itself infected with
agribusiness greed, preventing any possibility of truthful or timely
disclosure of mad cows. Although American beef consumption has been
cut nearly in half since 1980 (while chicken and pork have risen),
the beef industry has rarely been as lucrative, with 85 percent
of cattle farmers reporting profitability in 2000, up from only
15 percent in 1996. Ironically, Europe's crisis has been a huge
boon to "BSE-free" American beef exports, which shot up
34 percent in 2000, with shipments to the Russian Federation increasing
twenty-fivefold. Mad cow disease has clearly been great for business,
although McDonald's has suffered large European and Japanese losses
in the wake of widespread beef avoidance.
sacred cow at stake, many doubt the USDA will voluntarily reveal
the discovery of any BSE-infected cows-which would lead to certain
market collapse and public panic. Dr. Michael Gregor-a physician
who was one of the earliest critics of the US's handling of the
BSE threat (and is the Webmaster of the successor to Pringle's mad
cow site <www.purefood.org/madcow.htm>)-points out that the
"USDA has a conflict of interest, as the agency is responsible
both for consumer safety and the promotion of American agriculture,
of which meat is the primary industry." He notes that industry
groups have successfully lobbied against changes in the USDA's research
program to accommodate the possibility that BSE is already present
in the US.
In the absence
of sufficient inspectors and vigorous monitoring, the agency puts
its trust in the beef industry to implement its rules. Allegations
that the relationship between the two entities is overly cozy were
fortified with the appointment of President Bush's USDA staff. On
February 11, 2001, the New York Times reported: "Although they
have had a record year, cattle ranchers in the United States now
face growing anxiety over mad-cow disease...which could drive down
beef prices. But last week, they triumphed when Ann M. Veneman,
the new agriculture secretary, named Dale Moore, a lobbyist for
the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, as her chief of staff.
Charles P. Schroeder, the association's chief executive, said the
cattle industry was investing heavily in food safety and looking
forward to working with its former advocate."
The US has failed
to close gaping loopholes in the firewall against mad cows, and
the feeding of potentially infectious cow parts back to cattle continues
largely unmonitored. In early 2001, the FDA charged livestock-feed
producers and rendering plants-which powder a variety of animal
waste for use as a cheap feed supplement-with widespread noncompliance
with labeling and mixing regulations.
The next day,
the New York Times followed with a front-page article describing
the lapses: "Large numbers of companies involved in manufacturing
animal feed are not complying with regulations meant to prevent
the emergence and spread of mad-cow disease in the United States....
All products that contain rendered cattle or sheep must have a label
that says, 'Do not feed to ruminants.'... Manufacturers must also
have a system to prevent ruminant products from being commingled
with other rendered material."
The issue of
monitoring America's thousands of cattle farmers, the end-users
of rendered feed, has not been addressed by the Food and Drug Administration,
which primarily monitors interstate commerce.
Brain and spinal
cord tissue are the primary-but not the only-reservoirs of infectious
material in humans and animals. Current USDA and FDA regulations
are designed to prevent this material from ending up on the American
dinner plate, but the automatic meat-recovery (AMR) systems in wide
use at modern slaughterhouses, which mechanically strip the spine
of flesh, routinely include banned material in the meat. The USDA
and the federal Food Safety and Inspection Service have found spinal-cord
fragments and nervous-system tissue in AMR meat samples. It has
also been shown that, upon impact on the skull, pneumatic slaughterhouse
stun guns can force bovine brain matter into the bloodstream and
On August 10,
2001, the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the
USDA to ban AMR "meat" from the human food supply. Warning
that cattle are better protected from mad cow disease than people,
CSPI Food Safety Director Caroline Smith DeWaal stated:
Machines that strip meat from bones provide the best pathway for
BSE to get into human food. While the Food and Drug Administration
in 1997 banned the use of processed cattle parts in making cattle
feed, USDA has not taken adequate precautions to protect the human
food supply. US cattle aren't allowed to eat cattle spinal cord-and
neither should people.
press release notes:
AMR meat paste
typically is used in the production of hundreds of millions of pounds
of hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza toppings, and taco fillings, and
although USDA has asked companies to remove spinal cord from the
spinal column and neck bones before they enter the machines, the
agency rarely checks the industry's compliance. Since 1998, USDA
has tested approximately 100 samples of AMR meat for spinal cord.
Of those, nine samples tested positive for this central nervous
the department [of Agriculture] classifies the tissues as being
'not meat,' their presence in a meat product is not a violation
of food safety laws," notes reporter Lance Gay of the Scripps
Howard News Service. "Much of the mechanically separated meat
is sold to the school-lunch program, which the department also administers."
The Zoo Loop
TSEs have been
observed in numerous rodent, primate, and ungulate (hoofed) species,
and in various felines such as cheetahs and domestic cats. During
the late 1980s and the 1990s, numerous French zoo primates, felines,
and hoofed animals were shown to have TSEs. "Large numbers
of monkeys and lemurs in French zoos appear to be infected with
the agent that causes 'mad cow disease,' according to a provocative
study published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences," wrote the New York Times' mad cow reporter, Sandra
Blakeslee, in March 1999. "The finding is bad news for people
living in Britain who fear that a human form of mad cow disease,
called new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or CJD, may have similar
commented on this study: "This is a huge scandal because it
potentially affects the survival of many of the world's primate
species. It also suggests very strongly that the nvCJD epidemic
will indeed be a 'plague of biblical proportions'" (quoting
a warning given by prominent neurogeneticist John Collinge, a member
of the British government's Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee).
Got Mad Milk?
mentioned, but infectious prions can be contained in milk, although
it remains a remote vector. A 1992 Japanese study published in the
New England Journal of Medicine showed that human breast-milk colostrum
(the first milk a baby receives) is capable of transmitting prions,
and the infection of lambs with scrapie through milk has also been
demonstrated. It is not clear whether post-colostrum milk possesses
this capacity. Some people have chosen to avoid cheese from the
UK as a precautionary measure; many hard cheeses contain rennet,
an enzyme extracted from the stomachs of calves.
Vaccines, Blood, and Medical Instruments
of infection remain of grave concern. Direct inoculation presents
the highest risk. Despite warnings from Pringle and others, US vaccines,
which are often grown in bovine calf serum, are still being made
from suspect materials. In February 2001, the New York Times finally
picked up the story (curiously placed in the business section) under
the headline, "5 Drug Makers Use Material With Possible Mad-Cow
Link." The article stated, "For the last eight years the
FDA has repeatedly asked pharmaceutical companies not to use materials
from cattle raised in countries where there is a risk of mad-cow
disease.... But regulators discovered last year that...some of the
world's largest drug concerns were still using ingredients from
those countries to make nine widely used vaccines...[which] include
some regularly given to millions of American children, including
common vaccines to prevent polio, diphtheria and tetanus."
The list also includes flu shots and the hepatitis vaccine.
supplements containing glandular material, brains, and other bovine
ingredients are also at high risk. "Velvet Antler" capsules
from General Nutrition Centers and many other retailers "come
from the growing antlers of elk and can contain infectious agents,"
says Hansen. "They're filled with nerve tissue and blood. I
wouldn't want to be the one to be experimented on."
insane not to have greater safeguards [for supplements]," the
chair of the FDA's Advisory Committee on Mad Cow Disease, Dr. Paul
Brown, told the Times. "The FDA is toothless."
Red Cross, which collects half the US blood supply but doesn't test
for CJD, now bans blood donations from Americans who have spent
three months in Britain or one year elsewhere in Europe. The strict
ban has created a predicted national shortage of blood, especially
in New York City, where 25 percent of the red-cell supply was until
recently imported from FDA-approved European blood banks. The Red
Cross estimates that the current ban will cut nationwide blood donations
by 6 percent.
In the absence
of strict government regulations, some medical organizations have
voluntarily recalled large lots of fractionated blood products containing
donations from people later found to have CJD, usually after some
of the products have reached recipients. Over the past ten years,
at least $100 million worth of plasma products has reportedly been
Many drugs are
derived from cattle, including growth hormones from pituitary glands,
adrenaline products, cortisone, insulin for diabetics, and medications
for the treatment of stomach ulcers. Thromboplastin, a common blood
coagulant used in surgery, is derived from bovine brains. Pituitary
extracts from mad cows (as well as human donors with CJD) have been
traced as the cause of CJD infection in recipients.
that worries me is the immunization of the children," says
Pringle. "Every kid in the United States can't go to school
without their shots... They're growing vaccines out of fetal-calf
serum. Then you're injecting four-year-old children-which is much
worse than eating, 100,000 times more effective [at spreading the
disease]. Every schoolchild in the UK has already been immunized
with vaccine made from serum from infected bovines."
are at high risk of transmitting the infection, as autoclave steam
sterilization doesn't neutralize infectious prions. Blood, blood
products, bovine extracts, and transplant organs-such as brain dura
mater and corneas-are not usually screened for CJD, even though
in Britain and around the world, infected organ recipients, who
sometimes developed symptoms decades after treatment, have been
traced to unwitting donors later found to have CJD. Effective prion
sterilization protocols are not in wide use, but disposable surgical
instruments are now used in many British procedures. It is inevitable
that worldwide sterilization protocols will undergo drastic modification
in the face of the prion.
We Get the Test?
The spread of
BSE has given birth to the emerging industry of prion diagnostics,
which is rapidly growing to fill a demand for tests. Although postmortem
tests for BSE are now widely used in Europe, antemortem (i.e., pre-death)
tests for BSE and CJD are not yet commercially available.
A urine test
developed by Israeli researchers at the Department of Neurology
at Hadassah University Hospital, described in the Journal of Biological
Chemistry (21 June 2001), promises to meet the need for a simple
TSE test for live human and animal subjects. (The researchers note
that the presence of infectious prions in urine indicates that they
are being widely dispersed in soil, which has been experimentally
shown to preserve prion infectivity over a period of years.) However,
it is unclear how and when a viable CJD test will be released. In
Britain, the expected demand from millions of panicked individuals-concerned
they may have a horrible brain-wasting disease-may delay screening
while public policy for dealing with the results is formulated.
A finding of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of cases, as
has been projected by some researchers, could drastically alter
British society. Already, several cases of suicide by the "worried
well"-persons convinced they were developing CJD-have been
recorded in Britain.
health officials have been widely castigated for incompetence, delays,
and cover-ups in dealing with the BSE/CJD crisis. A crucial five-year
study into whether British sheep have BSE was admitted to be ruined
in mid-2001 by cross-contamination with bovine material. In the
latest chapter of the cover-up, according to BBC News, the costly
error wasn't announced until three months after its discovery.
The slow responses
of Britain, the US, and other nations to the AIDS crisis are recalled
by relatives of CJD victims, who hope this legacy of statistical
obfuscation, delays in test availability, and poor dissemination
of prevention information will not be repeated. Although Britain
may be the first nation where widespread CJD testing occurs, testing
in Japan, the US, and elsewhere will surely follow. It remains unclear
which governments will promote or downplay the importance of CJD
screening. With CJD, as with BSE, not looking is not finding.
It has been
proven experimentally that even fly larvae, after eating infected
tissue, can transmit scrapie to hamsters; the larvae were still
infectious after death. Nevertheless, the US government handbook
BSE Red Book-Emergency Operations states: "Cleaning and disinfection
is not necessary to prevent the spread of BSE."
Pringle is not
optimistic. In the US, "it would be a wrenching experience
to totally get away from the bovine economy, and realistically,
they're only going to take half-measures. It's like a joke now to
talk about containment. It's like locking the barn door after the
horse is gone. WTO, NAFTA, has really helped globalize CJD. You
don't know where your sutures are coming from, your shampoo, your
sunscreen. The Pandora's box has been opened."
In the absence
of a CJD test, the world can only guess the extent of the problem.
As CBS Evening News relayed: "When asked if, in his darkest
moment, he thought that this is the plague of the twenty-first century,
[Dr. Prusiner] said, 'I don't need a dark moment to wonder if that's
the case, because everybody's wondering that, not just me.' "
with Dr. Tom Pringle and Dr. Michael Hansen were conducted on several
occasions between 1998-2001.
About Gabe Kirchheimer
Working primarily as a photojournalist, Gabe
Kirchheimer was the first to write a series of articles on the U.S.
Mad Cow crisis in a national magazine, High Times. His groundbreaking
story, "Mad Cows Recycled by Demented Humans," in Jan.
1998, was followed by "Mad Cows and Englishmen" and "How
Now Mad Cow," which detailed hazardous cannibalism within the
meat industry. Kirchheimer has authored numerous articles on food
safety, and his photographs have been published in The New York
Times Magazine, Time, Newsweek, US News, the Los Angeles Times,
Rolling Stone, Forbes, Wired, Maxim, Psychology Today, Colors, the
London Independent Sunday Review, the London Times, Il Venerdi di
Repubblica, Panorama, Le Monde, Die Zeit, Science Illustrated, and
A vegan for the past 20 years, Kirchheimer believes
that "the plight of the Earth demands positive solutions and
the media has a primary responsibility to go beyond token reportage."