I can’t quite figure out why there’s not more chatter and hubbub surrounding mad cow disease. I have theories, such as the fact that if the facts were made clear to everyone there might be massive public panic (plus the possible collapse of the commercial beef industry). For all intents and purposes, mad cow disease looks like it will be the AIDS of this century. We appear to be on the precipice of an epidemic, but nobody is talking about it.
What Is It?
Cows get something called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), which is known informally as Mad Cow Disease. Diseased cattle can transmit the affliction to humans, where it manifests itself as something called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD). In both cases, what happens is that malevolent particles, called prions, drill through the actual tissue of the brain, consuming grey matter and slowly eroding the function of the brain until the infected person (or cow) becomes a slobbering, staggering idiot with no memories, no higher brain functions, no voluntary (or involuntary, eventually) muscle control, no self-awareness, no nothing. In 100% of the cases the person finally becomes bedridden and then dies. Slowly. Painfully.
CJD cannot be positively diagnosed in a living person. The only way to make a diagnosis is by examining the brain of someone who has died. The brain will be riddled with holes, hence the term “spongiform”. Once you catch it, you are dead. Period.
How Do You Get It?
Humans contract CJD by eating the nerve tissue or marrow of infected cows. The disease is transmitted by particles called prions, which are an abnormal form of normal protein. Prions have the wonderful characteristic of not being alive, which means that they cannot be killed by any reasonable means, and so retain their full infectious power even in fully cooked or cured beef. I’ll repeat, you cannot cook beef to make it safe from mad cow disease. Any time you eat ground beef from the grocery store, fast food joint, or restaurant, you are playing Russian Roulette. There are no tests to determine that beef is safe before it is sold. There is no way to treat or prepare the beef to make it safe if it contains any infected nerve tissue.
Who Has It?
But who has this disease? Well, that’s almost impossible to tell, as it appears to have a long incubation period, measured in years, even decades. That means that there could be dozens, or hundreds, or thousands, or millions of infected people in the world today displaying no symptoms, unable to be diagnosed, and unable to be cured.
Why Should I Be Worried?
First of all, if you are a vegetarian, you probably have nothing to worry about (for the most part, more below the Conjectures section). Also, if you never eat ground beef from the grocery store, fast food place, or restaurant, then you’re probably okay (see Conjectures). However, if you eat ground beef (that you haven’t ground yourself from whole, muscular cuts of beef like steaks or roasts) regularly, then you are running the risk of infection. Why is it risky to eat ground beef? Well, first of all, in the US it is now legal for cattle producers to sell their sick cows to feed companies, and for those companies to process these sick and dying animals into feed protein that is fed right back into the cattle population.
Think about that for a moment. You are a cattle rancher, trying to make a profit. You see that some of your cows are feeling a bit poorly. Nothing major, but just not looking right. You know that by the time you get them to the meat processor, they will probably be so obviously sick that the processor will be forced to reject them (by law). That means you have fed, raised, and shipped the cow, and now get nothing for it, except the additional expense of trying to dispose of it. However, you have another option. At the first sign of illness you can sell your cow to a feed producer. You’ll get much less than the market value of a healthy cow, but at least you get SOMETHING for your troubles.
So, what do you think the ranchers do? They do the economically sound thing and cut their losses, that’s what they do. And pour all those wonderful, indestructible, infectious prions back into the cattle population. Legally.
So, then what is the extent of the infected cattle population? That is unknown, and currently unknowable, because most cows don’t live long enough to develop symptoms. That’s right. Any or all of the healthy looking cows that we eat could be infected, and it is undetectable.
More importantly, what is the extent of the infected human population? Again, that is not very well known, as the medical community is only recently becoming aware that some deaths previously attributed to things like Alzheimer’s disease might actually have been caused by CJD. In fact, Pittsburgh Veterans hospital did autopsies of 50 or so patients whose deaths had been classified as being due to Alzheimer’s. Upon examination, it was determined that 5% of the patients actually had CJD at the time of their deaths. Think about that statistic. That’s one out of twenty people. This study has not been widely publicized, and there have been no other publicly announced studies of this kind (that I can find as of this writing).
Okay, Now I’m Worried. But What Can I Do?
This is a tough one. My wife and I have stopped eating commercially processed ground beef, for example. We bought a meat grinder and sometimes grind up steaks or roasts to make our own hamburgers, because we still get a burger jones every now and then. The issue with commercially ground beef is that, as most of us know, hamburger is not usually made from premium cow parts. Lots of lesser parts make it into the mix, including, unfortunately, random bits and pieces of nerve tissue and marrow. Cow muscle tissue (steaks, roasts) doesn’t contain any nerve tissue, normally, and so is safer than ground beef of unknown makeup.
However, if one starts with the fact that prions are virtually indestructible, the issue becomes more difficult. For example, if a restaurant cooks your steak (or grilled veggies) on the same grill where a hamburger has been cooked, it’s absolutely possible that prions from the hamburger can drip onto the grill and then hitch a ride on your steak (or veggies!). Remember, cooking doesn’t kill prions or render them any less infectious. Following this logic thread makes it easy to start slipping into paranoia, but the truth is that the world should be more paranoid about this threat. NOBODY is talking about this issue. NOBODY is doing anything about it. Why is that?
Well, one reason for that may be that the powers that be know that there is nothing that can be done. It’s too late to warn people, because the meat supply has been contaminated for so long that they can’t stop it now. The people who have it, have it, and they are going to die from it, and it would serve no purpose at this point to start a panic about something for which nothing can be done.
Also, another reason you don’t hear much about this is because of what happened to Oprah Winfrey. If you recall, in 1996 Oprah had a show about mad cow where she covered some of the very same topics in this article, and suddenly found herself staring down the business end of a big old civil lawsuit brought about by the beef industry. After six years, and $1,000,000 in legal fees paid by Ms. Winfrey, the suit was dismissed. Yes, free speech won out, but it certainly wasn’t free. Now, we all know the power and influence that Oprah wields in the world, so imagine the political clout of a group that can drag her through the courts for six years, and have the whole thing end quietly and under-reported.
My personal opinion is that this problem is more widespread than the powers-that-be imagine, and the threat is certainly not being investigated nor treatments or prevention being explored to the degree necessary. If you recall the gradual public awakening to the threat of AIDS, you might find the current reaction to CJD to be eerily similar. A fatal disease spread by something that everybody does, with a long incubation period so that it becomes widespread before it is publicly acknowledged with any fervor. Delays in funding research into the detection, prevention, and cure of the disease. Widespread public ignorance as to the true nature of the disease. The consequences with AIDS are millions infected and dying around the world, and no cure in sight.
What will the toll be for mad cow?