Mad Cow USA/How now mad cow?

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This article was first published as "How Now, Mad Cow?" in PR Watch, Volume 11, No. 1, 1st Quarter 2004. It was originally authored by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber and is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.

Common Courage Press has just released the paperback version of our 1997 book, Mad Cow USA--the book that predicted the emergence of the deadly human and animal dementia disease in the United States. When Mad Cow USA was first published in November 1997, it bore the subtitle "Could the Nightmare Happen Here?" We used a question mark because we thought mad cow disease was possible but still preventable in the United States, if the meat industry and government regulators adopted adequate safety measures.

Our book received favorable reviews at the time from some interesting publications, such as the Journal of the American Medical Association, New Scientist, and Chemical & Engineering News. Otherwise, it went largely ignored and unheralded. It sold briskly but briefly during the infamous Texas trial of Oprah Winfrey for the alleged crime of "food disparagement," and then slid into obscurity until December 2003, when the "nightmare" in our subtitle arrived and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman announced that mad cow disease has been found in the United States.

As we've followed mad cow disease over the years, we've seen U.S. government and industry officials spin it as just an hysterical European food scare. On March 20, 1996, the British government reversed itself after ten years of denial and announced that mad cow disease--known technically as "bovine spongiform encephalopathy" or BSE--had passed into humans and was the cause of a fatal dementia then called "new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease" or nvCJD. (Nowadays they don't say "new," and the abbreviation is just vCJD.) At the time, the U.S. media dutifully echoed reassurances from government and livestock industry officials that all necessary precautions had been taken long ago to guard against the disease.

Those who had read our book realized that U.S. assurances of safety were based on public relations and public deception, not science or adequate regulatory safeguards. We revealed that the United States Department of Agriculture knew as early as 1991 that to prevent mad cow disease in America would require a strict ban on "animal cannibalism"--the feeding of rendered slaughterhouse waste from cattle to cattle as protein and fat supplements--but refused to support the ban because it would cost the meat industry money. We exposed the dangerous inadequacies of the FDA's 1997 regulations in the final chapter of this book when it first appeared, and many of those inadequacies remain today.

It was the livestock feed industry that led the effort in the early 1990s to lobby into law the Texas food disparagement act that was the basis for the 1996 lawsuit against Oprah Winfrey and her guest, rancher turned vegetarian activist Howard Lyman. Winfrey and Lyman eventually won the lawsuit, but it cost them years of legal battling and millions of dollars in attorney fees. In reality, the public lost, because mainstream media stopped covering the threat of mad cow disease in the United States. As one TV network producer told us at the time, his orders were to keep his network from being sued the way Oprah had been.

There have been several new developments since our book originally came out, some of which have been good news. In 1997, the discovery that mad cow disease had passed into humans was still so recent that public health experts could only guess how many cases of vCJD would eventually develop in the millions of people who had eaten contaminated British beef. At the time, the available estimates ranged from a few dozen to a few million. Since then, information has accumulated showing that neither the best-case nor the worst-case scenarios of six years ago are likely. In early 2001, leading scientists from the National Institutes of Health, the USDA and England's National Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease Surveillance Unit published an assessment in Emerging Infectious Diseases, published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "Much of the lingering uncertainty about the extent of the vCJD outbreak is attributable to the fact that the incubation period of vCJD is unknown," they stated, adding: "Depending on assumptions about the incubation period and other variables, mathematical modeling predicts that the total extent of the outbreak could range from fewer than one hundred to hundreds of thousands of cases."

Since then, the lower end of these estimates has risen slightly, and the upper end has also dropped. As of January 2004, the total number of human cases in England stood at 143. One statistical analysis published in 2003 estimated that the number of additional future deaths from vCJD in humans in England would likely be somewhere between 10 and 2,600. Even today, however, estimates like these rely on numerous unproven assumptions and unknown factors and should be regarded as educated guesses rather than reliable prediction.

There has also been some additional bad news, which is specific and unique to the United States. When we wrote Mad Cow USA, we gave only one brief mention to chronic wasting disease (CWD). Like mad cow disease, CWD is a "prion disease"--a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy caused by a rogue protein. The difference is that whereas mad cow appears in cattle, CWD appears in deer and elk. It was first detected in the United States in the 1960s, and since then it has been spreading slowly through the deer and elk population. At first confined to a few western states, it has since moved into Canada and Wisconsin. Mike Miller of the Colorado Division of Wildlife has described chronic wasting disease as "an epidemic occurring in slow motion." No one has yet come up with a plausible strategy for stopping its spread, and no one yet even knows why it seems to spread more easily in wild deer and elk than mad cow has spread in captive populations.

If mad cow disease has taught us anything, its lesson is that no one should assume anything about a disease of this type, which is unusual in nature, difficult to detect during its long invisible latent period, and therefore hard to study and still poorly understood. It is especially unwise to make assumptions about the safety of a disease which, once it occurs, is 100 percent fatal. The British made this mistake, reassuring the public that beef was safe to eat, and their people (especially British farmers) paid a heavy price. We find it disturbing, therefore, that the appearance of chronic wasting disease in Wisconsin was greeted by reassurances that hunters not only could continue to eat venison safely, they should actually hunt more in hopes of thinning the deer herd and slowing the spread of the disease. To encourage hunters, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources even paid for radio commercials featuring a jingle that mocked CWD as "crying and whining disease" and urged, "Bag 'em, tag 'em, drag 'em, freeze 'em, test 'em, fry 'em / I ain't afraid of no twisted little prion."

Following the publication of Mad Cow USA, we continued to give media interviews, spoke at conferences of U.S. families who had lost relatives to CJD, and saw our book translated and published in both South Korea and Japan. Our activism won us some interesting enemies, such as Richard Berman, a Republican lobbyist who runs an industry-funded front group that calls itself the "Center for Consumer Freedom." Berman is a darling of the tobacco, booze, biotech and food industries, and with their funding he issued an online report depicting us as the ringleaders of a dangerous conspiracy of vegetarian food terrorists out to destroy the U.S. food system. Shortly after September 11, the Center for Consumer Freedom characterized our writing and speaking as a form of "extremist violence. . . . Words deployed with the intention of causing panic are a form of violence, too. The 'mad cow' scare campaign in the United States is intended to frighten consumers to avoid the conventional meat supply and 'go organic.'"

Of course, Berman had an easier time attacking us before the emergence of mad cow disease in North America, a development that we found saddening but not surprising. When the first mad cow was found last May in Canada, we told interviewers that it was bound to show up also in the United States and Mexico. All three nations are one big free trade zone under the North American Free Trade Agreement. And all three were feeding their cattle slaughterhouse waste in the form of blood, fat, rendered meat and bone meal--the practice which caused the disease to spread widely in England. Until February of this year, North America calves were literally weaned on milk formula containing "raw spray dried cattle blood plasma," even though scientists have known for years that blood can transmit prion diseases.

The United States has spent millions of dollars on PR convincing Americans that mad cow could never happen here, and even now the USDA is engaged in a crisis management plan that has federal and state officials, livestock industry flacks, scientists and other trusted experts assuring the public that this is no big deal. Their litany of falsehoods includes statements that a "firewall" feed ban has been in place in the United States since 1997, that muscle meat is not infective, that no slaughterhouse waste is fed to cows, that the U.S. tests adequate numbers of cattle for mad cow disease, that quarantines and meat recalls are just an added measure of safety, that the risks of this mysterious killer are miniscule, that no one in the United States has ever died of any such disease, and on and on. The USDA has also attempted to pin the U.S. mad cow crisis on Canada, claiming that it was the source of the mad cow discovered in Washington state. Blaming Canada, however, still leaves numerous questions: How many other infected cows have crossed our porous borders and been processed into human and animal food? Why are U.S. slaughterhouse regulations so lax that a visibly sick cow was sent into the human food chain weeks before tests came back with the mad cow findings? Where did the infected byproduct feed that this animal ate come from, and how many thousands of other animals have eaten similar feed?

Since the discovery of mad cow disease in the United States, our phones have rung off the hook with interview requests. The New York Times noted that "The 1997 book Mad Cow USA, by Sheldon Rampton and John C. Stauber, made the case that the disease could enter the United States from Europe in contaminated feed." Dr. Stanley Prusiner, who won the Nobel Prize for his research into the unique disease agent called a "prion" that causes mad cow disease, called the U.S. practice of weaning calves on cattle blood protein "a really stupid idea." All of this would be very vindicating, except for one problem: the millions of dollars that the government and industry are spending on PR to pull the wool over the public's eyes might just succeed in forestalling the necessary steps that now, at this late date, must still be taken to avoid a worsening crisis.

Fortunately, the steps which need to be taken are rather simple and understandable. We should ship U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman and her smartest advisors to Britain so they can study and copy the successful feed and testing regulations that have managed the mad cow problem in Europe. Veneman and her advisors should institute a complete and total ban on feeding any slaughterhouse waste to livestock. You may think this ban is already in place, because that's what industry and government said they did back in the summer of 1997. But billions of pounds of rendered fat, blood meal, meat and bone meal from pigs and poultry are rendered and fed to cattle, and cattle are rendered and fed to other food species, a perfect environment for spreading and amplifying mad cow disease and even for creating new strains of the disease.

The feed rules that the United States must adopt can be summarized this way: human beings do not have to be vegetarians, but the animals we eat must be. The United States must also institute an immediate testing regime that will test millions of cattle, not just the 20,000 that were tested out of 35 million slaughtered in the past year in the United States. Japan now tests all cattle before consumption, and disease experts like Dr. Prusiner recommend this goal for the United States.

Unfortunately, Veneman and the Bush administration continue to drag their feet. The U.S. meat industry hopes that the millions of dollars in campaign contributions doled out over the years will continue to forestall the necessary regulations, and that soothing PR assurances will convince the consuming public that this is just some vegetarian fear-mongering conspiracy. Will the American public buy this bull? It has in the past. Much depends on journalists and what they are willing to swallow. It looks now as if papers such as the Wall Street Journal and New York Times are finally putting some good investigative reporting teams onto this issue, and that may undercut and expose PR ruses such as the USDA's "blame Canada campaign" or the claim that USDA's planned increase in testing is sufficient.

It is likely that most U.S. trade partners will continue their boycotts of U.S. beef, rendered byproducts, animals and animal products will continue, and this will apply a major economic hurt to meat producers big and small across the country. Will their anger turn against the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the Animal Feed Industry Association and other lobbies that have prevented the United States from doing the right thing in the past? Or will this become some sort of nationalistic food culture issue, with confused consumers and family farmers blaming everyone but the real culprits in industry and government?

The United States must be made to follow the lead of the European Union nations, ban all feeding of slaughterhouse waste to livestock, and test millions of cattle for mad cow disease. In the meantime, if you want American beef that has been grown in a safe manner, search out products that are certified organic.

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