25. Deadly “Mad Cow Disease” Spreads to North America

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Sources: THE ANIMALS AGENDA, Date: March/April 1994, Title: “Eating beef in Britain is becoming risky business,” Author: Joyce D’Silva; IN THESE TIMES, Date: 1/24/94, Title: “How Now Mad Cow?” Author: Joel Bleifuss

SSU Censored Researcher: Kate Kauffman

SYNOPSIS: A new and ghastly dis­ease which turns the brain sponge-­like and has been attacking dairy cows in England for years, has now appeared in North America. Nicknamed “Mad Cow Disease,” bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) has infected more than 120,000 cattle since it was discov­ered in 1985.

BSE attacks the animal’s central nervous system and makes the animal fall, act confused, or act aggressive. It is thought that British cattle contracted the virus-like agent that causes this degenerative brain disease by eating protein feed supplements made from the ren­dered carcasses of sheep that were infected with scrapie, the sheep form of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy.

While it has not been proven that humans can contract the disease from BSE-infected cattle, humans are susceptible to three brain dis­eases similar to BSE. The most common of these, though still rare, is Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), a horrendous condition that leads to rapid dementia and death within a year after its first symptoms appear. CJD has an incubation period of up to 30 years. So far two British dairy farmers, whose herds were infected with BSE, have died from CJD, and a teenage girl whose favorite food is beef-burgers also is said to have developed the disease. Since 1989, the number of Britons who succumb to CJD each year has increased by 100 percent. Nonetheless, the offi­cial position of both the British and U.S. governments is that BSE poses no risk to humans.

The recent discovery of a case of BSE on a ranch in Alberta, Canada, has increased fears that a BSE epi­demic threatens North America. The cow that contracted BSE had been imported to Canada from England in 1987. It was one of 175 cows Canada imported from England between 1982 and 1989, when both the United States and Canada banned the importation of British cattle. Before the ban went into effect, the United States imported 459 cattle from Britain during this time period. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as of August 23, 1991, 205 of the British cattle imported into the U.S. were still alive, 66 were untraceable, and 188 had died or been slaughtered, and then rendered. In response to the BSE case in Canada, the USDA is now retracing the whereabouts of the 205 cattle still alive in 1991.

The occasional occurrence of BSE in U.S. cattle would not pose a public health risk were it not for two factors. First, almost all dead cow material that is not consumed as human food is rendered into bone and protein meal, some of which is then fed back to cattle in the form of high-protein feed supplements. Second, in the late `70s, the ren­dering industry here and in Britain began rendering animal carcasses with fewer solvents and at lower temperatures, a change that allows the virus-like agent that causes transmissible encephalopathies to survive intact. This is how the scrapie agent began to infect the British cattle population.

In 1989, British government experts predicted 17,000 to 20,000 cases of BSE by 1993. The actual number of cases was 120,476 by the end of February 1994.

COMMENTS: The “Mad cow dis­ease” story is regularly covered in the European press, according to investigative author Joel Bleifuss. “In Great Britain stories about the disease and the controversy over whether it poses a risk to humans appear weekly” But, Bleifuss adds, “I am the only U.S. journalist who has been reporting on the contro­versy within the FDA and the USDA on how to respond to the threat posed by the disease.

“Cattle infected with mad cow disease were certainly imported from Britain into the U.S. before the 1989 ban on such imports went into effect. And some of those cattle have undoubtedly died from the disease and then been rendered into animal protein feed supplements. These supplements, infected with the agent that causes mad cow disease, then have been fed to other cows, setting off a cycle like the one that has devastated the British beef industry. Because the USDA and FDA still permit the practice of feeding cows back to other cows, the U.S. cattle industry faces an increas­ingly greater threat of contamina­tion. Further, those humans who have eaten meat from infected ani­mals have been subjected to a poten­tial, if at present unquantifiable, risk.”

“The short-term interests of the beef, rendering and feed industries are all served by keeping this story quiet,” Bleifuss noted. “Public offi­cials at the FDA and USDA who have failed to act have also bene­fited from the lack of coverage.”