U.S. Denials Deepen Mad Cow Danger

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This article was first published as "Apocalypse Cow: U.S. Denials Deepen Mad Cow Danger" 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.

USDA: risk manager for industry

For seven years the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the multi-billion dollar animal livestock industry have cooperated in a PR cover-up of huge health risks to animals and people in the United States.

For 10 years, even preceding the British outbreak of Mad Cow Disease, the USDA has had scientific evidence that a version of the disease exists in U.S. cattle. Yet government and industry have failed even at this late date to ban the practice of "cow cannibalism" which created the fatal epidemic now spreading in Britain from cows to people. The practice has been banned in Britain for years, but continues in the U.S. and is in fact more widespread here than in any other country.

You probably never heard of Mad Cow Disease until March 20, 1996, when its emergence in humans caused the unbelievable spectacle of the collapse of the British beef market and the pending extermination of millions of British cattle.

You might be relieved to know that the USDA and FDA have been monitoring the situation closely for almost a decade. Unfortunately, internal documents and PR plans obtained by PR Watch via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) investigation show that the government has sought to protect the economic interests of the powerful meat and animal feed industries, while denying the existence of risks to animals and humans.

Mad Cows and Englishmen

After a decade of official denials, the British government finally admitted March 20 that Mad Cow Disease, which has killed over 160,000 British cattle, appears to be migrating into humans who ate contaminated beef and are now dying of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD).

The British government's acknowledgement that eating infected beef was the likely cause of death for 10 unusually young victims of CJD came as grim vindication to Dr. Richard Lacey, a leading British microbiologist whose increasingly desperate warnings have been officially dismissed for the past six years.

Dr. Lacey predicts that the government's failure to act sooner, combined with the disease's long latency period, could produce between 5,000 to 500,000 human deaths per year in Britain beginning sometime after the year 2000. "This is one of the most disgraceful episodes in this country's history," Lacey said. "The government has been deliberately risking the health of the population for a decade. The reason it didn't take action was that it would be expensive and damaging politically, particularly to the farming community who are their supporters."

The deadly PR cover-up Lacey deplored in England is continuing today in the United States. In Texas, agriculture officials responded to the tragic news of human deaths in Britain with a mocking April 4 publicity stunt. They organized a cook-out and offered reporters slices of smoked brisket while Agriculture Commissioner Rick Perry criticized the media for stirring up public fears. A spokesman for the rendering industry, which created the crisis in England through its practice of converting dead animals into protein feed for live animals, stood alongside Perry and moralized about the need to avoid "hysteria in the U.S. about domestic beef."

Additional reassurances came from the nutritional supplement industry, which uses cow glandular materials, and the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association (CTFA), whose members use rendered animal protein in facial creams and other products. CTFA spokesperson Irene Malbin pleaded "for U.S. consumers to listen to what the leading health authorities continue to state, which is that BSE is simply not a safety issue in this country."

These official pronouncements bear an eerie similarity to the British government's past statements on the issue. As recently as December, British Prime Minister John Major told the British House of Commons that there was absolutely no connection between BSE and disease in humans. In January, British agriculture minister Angela Browning said her government's stance was "ultra precautionary" and accused the media of an "unprincipled" effort to "whip this up to a frenzy of public alarm where there is simply nothing there."

How Now, Mad Cow?

The disease affecting British cows was nicknamed Mad Cow Disease because affected animals show symptoms of staggering and drooling. In a 1991 internal PR document, however, the U.S. Department of Agriculture advised officials to use the technical name for the disease. "The term 'mad cow disease' has been detrimental," the document explained. "We should emphasize the need to use the term 'bovine spongiform encephalopathy' or 'BSE.'" BSE is a bovine form of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE), a 100% fatal disease that kills by rotting away the brain. The disease has a long invisible latency period which can last years, and during which infected victims appear healthy but are in fact contagious if their flesh is consumed by other animals.

A human form of the disease was rampant in South Sea cannibal cultures, where it was called kuru. There is no accepted test for the disease in living people or animals until after after death when an autopsy shows spongelike holes in the victim's brain tissue. Previous outbreaks in humans have also occurred among organ transplant patients and recipients of human growth hormone extracted from cadaver-source pituitary glands.

Research into TSE has been a slow process, but scientists today generally agree that the disease is caused by an abnormal form of a body protein called a "prion." Dr. Stanley Prusiner, a California neurologist who discovered the prion in 1982, believes that it will eventually be linked to Alzheimers, a widespread degenerative brain disease. Experiments have shown that most transmissible spongiform encephalopathies can pass from one species to another if an animal gets a large enough exposure to prion-infected tissue, but it is especially easily transmitted when an animal consumes flesh from another animal of its own species.

Mad Cow Disease apparently became an epidemic in England as a result of "rendering plants," factories which melt carcasses and waste meat products into protein used in animal feeds, cosmetics, medicines and many other items. For the past two decades, increasing amounts of rendered protein have been fed back to living farm animals, including cows, to increase their milk and meat production.

Prions survive heating and the rendering process, and as little as one teaspoon of feed derived from infected cattle can transmit the disease to another cow. TSEs occur naturally in all mammalian species at a very low rate of incidence, but innovations in rendering have amplified and concentrated this rare disease into a deadly epidemic.

Feeding Frenzy

In both Britain and the U.S., a type of TSE called "scrapie" has long thrived in sheep. Many scientists believe that British cows first acquired the disease by eating rendered sheep protein. However, since TSE occurs spontaneously in all mammals, the practice of rendering animals of any species and feeding them back to their own kind creates a cycle likely to cause an outbreak of this cannibal disease.

Cases of Mad Cow began occurring in England in 1986, swelling into an epidemic that drove Britain to ban the practice of "cow cannibalism" in 1989. In the United States, however, the practice continues unabated. Each year billions of pounds of proteins from dead cows, sheep, pigs, chickens and other animals are processed into animal feed.

Rather than follow Britain's precautionary example, the USDA and the FDA convened a committee in 1990 dominated by the cattle, dairy, sheep and rendering industries. They launched a PR crisis management plan that continues today.

The low point of this PR deception came with a press statement on March 30, 1996, timed for release late on a Friday evening when media scrutiny would be at its lowest. With government blessings, the meat industry announced a "voluntary ban" on feeding rendered cows to cows. This oxymoron is simply a PR maneuver with no means of enforcement.

A similar voluntary ban failed miserably when tried in Britain. The announcement in the United States is an even more cynical hoax, and the feeding of ruminant protein to cows continues at a rate of millions of pounds per day as PR Watch goes to print on April 15, 1996.

Say It Ain't So

U.S. government and industry representatives continue to insist that Mad Cow disease does not exist here. Unfortunately, this party line is based on wishful thinking rather than scientific proof. In fact, research by Dr. Richard F. Marsh of the University of Wisconsin indicates that a U.S. version of spongiform encephalopathy already infects U.S. dairy cows.

Marsh is an internationally-recognized expert in the study of TSEs. In 1985, he discovered an outbreak of TSE in mink in central Wisconsin. The mink had gotten the disease after being fed the remains of Wisconsin dairy cows. Over the years Marsh experimentally transferred the TSE from mink into two holstein steers through inoculation, then back from the cattle to mink, showing that it was both transmissible and fatal in both species.

This U.S. version of TSE, however, did not produce the behavioral symptoms--staggering and drooling--that made the disease obvious in British cattle. Instead, the two steers experimentally infected by Marsh died by simply collapsing, mimicking a common cow ailment in the U.S. called "Downer Cow Syndrome." Over 20,000 "downer" cows die each year in Wisconsin alone. A U.S. BSE agent could be hidden in this large population.

Research by Dr. Richard F. Marsh at the University of Wisconsin indicates that a U.S. version of spongiform encephalopathy may already have begun to spread among dairy cows in the United States.

Downer cows are typically rendered and fed back to living cows, which could concentrate and amplify the disease into an epidemic like the one that has devastated the British cattle industry, but harder to detect because the cows would not go "mad" before keeling over dead.

A major U.S. outbreak seems plausible, even likely, unless the U.S. government acts swiftly to outlaw the practice of feeding rendered byproduct protein to cows.

Has a meat-borne form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease already spread into the U.S. human population? Despite denials from the U.S. government, at least two statistically alarming clusters of CJD have already been reported in the U.S. CJD has been mistaken in the past for Alzheimers, a disease that afflicts some four million Americans. The beginnings of a CJD epidemic in the U.S. could therefore be occurring already, misdiagnosed by doctors and hidden within the country's huge population of dementia patients.

The International Center for Technology Assessment, a Washington-based public interest organization, filed a legal petition on March 27 to stop the feeding of rendered ruminants to ruminants.

The petition also demands a detailed and on-going epidemiological study of BSE and CJD in the U.S. The same attorneys filed a similar petition in 1993, which the FDA and USDA largely ignored.

How much longer can the government and the livestock industry continue their cover-up? That probably depends on the American news media and the information they provide to the public. Unfortunately, most of the media is merely parroting the official government/ industry PR assurance that it can't happen here.

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