A Decade of Denial: Chronology of the Mad Cow Cover-up

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This article was first published as "A Decade of Denial: Chronology of the Mad Cow Cover-Up" in PR Watch, Volume 3, No. 1, First Quarter 1996. It original article was authored by John C. Stauber and Sheldon Rampton and is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.


1985

  • Dr. Richard F. Marsh, a TSE expert and researcher at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, investigates a Wisconsin mink herd wiped out by a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE) disease picked up from their feed--"downer" dairy cattle. He notifies colleagues of the apparent presence in dairy cows of a TSE agent, publishes peer-reviewed papers and launches a decade of continuing research.

1986

  • Seven cases are reported of a new spongiform encephalopathy called "Mad Cow Disease" in British cattle.

1987

  • England reports 413 new cases of Mad Cow Disease.

1988

  • Another 2,185 cases of the disease are confirmed.

1989

  • The USDA quietly forms a committee to review the situation in the United States. Dr. Richard Marsh joins half a dozen scientists at an April 24 meeting with Dr. Gerald Wells of the British Ministry of Agriculture. The group concludes that "it would be of great value to examine the activities of the rendering industry in the United States. . . . We do not know what the practices and regulations of the U.S. rendering industry are." This early meeting is attended by the American Sheep Industry Association and an aide to Congressman Jim Leach (R-IA), considered friendly to the meat and rendering industries located in his state. Marsh's warnings to the committee fall on deaf ears.
  • By yearend, England has confirmed another 7,136 cases of the disease. The British government bans the practice of feeding rendered cows and sheep back to cows, but assures the public the disease cannot be transmitted to humans.

1990

  • In March the Journal of Infectious Disease publishes a paper reporting that scrapie, the sheep version of TSE, can survive heat of 360 degrees centigrade, a clear indication that TSE diseases can survive rendering and contaminate rendered animal feed.
  • On April 30 the USDA's official "Scrapie/BSE Consultants Group" meets. Its small membership is dominated by the National Milk Producers Federation, the National Cattlemen's Association, the American Sheep Industry Association and soon the National Renderers Association. Dr. Mark Robinson, a USDA researcher, points out that "the rendering processes employed in the United Kingdom and the United States are virtually the same."
  • Dr. Linda Detwiler, a USDA official, reports that U.S. sheep scrapie has been spread into cattle in government tests. For decades scrapie-infected sheep have passed through U.S. rendering plants.
  • In June, the USDA produces a report titled "BSE Rendering Research Priorities" which warns that rendering plants themselves may be contaminated with TSE disease agents: "If scrapie or BSE-infected animals are rendered, it may become necessary to disinfect the rendering facilities. Unfortunately, both the resistance of spongiform encephalopathy agents to many disinfectants and the need to avoid corrosive chemicals in rendering plants create major limitations on the choice of technology available."
  • Another 14, 180 Mad Cows are reported in England. British agriculture ministor John Gummer attempted to allay fears by posing for this photograph of himself and his four-year-old daughter chomping on hamburgers. "It's delicious," he tells reporters.

1991

  • USDA produces a a PR crisis plan to protect the meat and rendering industry (see excerpts on previous page).
  • Another USDA report, titled "BSE Rendering Policy," is based largely on data provided by the National Renderers Association, the industry lobby group. It reveals that "the U.S. beef and dairy industries have fed meat and bone meal for at least 10 years. . . . there were approximately 7.9 billion pounds of meat and bone meal, blood meal, and feather meal produced in 1989." Of that amount, 34% went to pet food; 34% to feed poultry, 20% for swine feed, and 10% to the beef and dairy industry.
  • "There is speculation . . . that a spongiform encephalopathy agent is present in the U.S. cattle population," notes the USDA report, pointing out that "prohibit[ing] the feeding of sheep and cattle-origin protein products to all ruminants, regardless of age. . . . minimizes the risk of BSE. The disadvantage is that the cost to the livestock and rendering industries would be substantial."
  • In England, another 25,025 cases are reported.

1993

  • The Foundation on Economic Trends, a Washington, DC public interest group, files a legal petition calling on FDA Commissioner David Kessler and then-Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy to order a permanent halt to all feeding of rendered protein to ruminant animals, and to begin intensive monitoring of both the U.S. human and animal population for BSE and CJD. The petition is ignored.
  • In England, disturbing results emerge from experiments in which goats, sheep, mice, monkeys, pigs, minks and golden hamsters are injected with material from infected cattle. Every species except hamsters develops a form of TSE.
  • Also in England, two farmers who worked with BSE-infected cattle die of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease--an illness so rare that it would be expected to affect only one farmer every 50 years.

1994

  • Two more English farmers die of CJD, and 16-year-old Victoria Rimmer contracts the disease. She is the first teenager in England ever to contract CJD, which usually strikes people aged 55 and over. Her diagnosis deepens suspicion that a new form of CJD may have begun to infect humans.

1995

  • Three more British teenagers are stricken, along with six other people whose profiles differ from traditional victims of the disease. All of the victims are young, averaging 29 years in age. Fears rise when former government health advisor Sir Bernard Tomlinson, a leading neuropathologist, announces that he has stopped eating hamburgers because he fears a link between human and bovine diseases. British government officials continue to insist that there is "no evidence that BSE can be passed to humans."
  • The issue is hotly debated in the November British Medical Journal. Paul Brown, Medical Director of the U.S. Public Health Service Laboratory of Central Nervous System Studies, pens an article for the issue in which he argues that "there does not seem to be any need for new governmental hearings, committee meetings, or parliamentary debates about what more might be done because the precautions taken some years ago . . . were both logical and thorough."

1996

  • British Health Secretary Stephen Dorrell, who has steadfastly denied that Mad Cow Disease poses any danger to humans, appears ashen-faced before the House of Commons on March 20 to announce that BSE is "the most likely explanation at present" for "the 10 cases of CJD which have been identified in people aged under 42." Panic follows, devastating the British beef industry. "The Roast Beef of Old England is a fetish, a household god, which has suddenly been revealed as a Trojan horse for our destruction," states an editorial in the Guardian, Britain's leading newspaper.
  • "We are in a mass experiment which is killing us," says Tim Lang, professor of Food Policy at Thames Valley University. "Never before have diseased ruminants (sheep) been fed to other ruminants (cows) and then fed to humans. We have interfered with the whole process of nature and what is now happening is one of our worst nightmares. . . . This is a tragedy on a massive scale. The Government has been so totally stupid. Even now they are still employing crisis management techniques and damage limitation exercises."
  • "It now appears I was wrong," admits U.S. medical official Paul Brown. "A great deal of work remains to be done. . . . None of it will be of any help to those who may have been exposed to the infectious agent. . . . Nor will it remedy the possible failure of the scientific pundits (including me) to foresee a potential medical catastrophe."

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