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All About Mad Cow
Friends of Earth

Mad Cow Disease belongs to a family of neurological disorders that eat away at the brain, turning it into a sponge-like mass. Known to scientists as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), the popular name Mad Cow Disease refers to the symptoms of infected cattle: "staggering, drooling, signs of fear, grinding of teeth, aggression toward other animals." People have contracted Mad Cow Disease through eating the meat of infected animals. In humans, the affliction is known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD). Symptoms of the Mad Cow-induced form of CJD include hallucinations, loss of memory, dementia, uncontrollable crying or screaming, and inability to speak or walk. These two diseases are always fatal, to humans as to cattle. There is no cure, treatment or vaccine.

Mad Cow on the Rampage:

Mad Cow Disease was first detected in the mid-1980s in England, where it has killed over 180,000 cattle, devastated the British cattle industry, and ruined countless farmers. From Britain the epidemic spread to the rest of Europe, infecting over 4,200 cattle in 19 countries by mid-2003. Though apparently under control in Europe, the disease still kills 2-3 cattle each day. Because Mad Cow has jumped the species barrier, killing humans, European authorities have taken a precautionary approach to stop the epidemic, destroying over 5 million potentially infected cattle. Mad Cow is not confined to Europe; infected cattle have also appeared in Canada, Japan, Israel, Oman and the Falkland Islands.

Mad Cow Found in North America

The first North American case not attributable to import of a diseased cow from England was reported in Alberta, Canada in May 2003. Such native-born cases of Mad Cow Disease are alarming because they indicate that feeding practices in the country are to blame, and that other cattle likely have the disease. Given the huge trade in cattle and beef between Canada and the U.S., coupled with inadequate testing and controls in both countries (see below), it is very likely that the U.S. also harbors mad cows that just haven't been detected.

How is the Disease Spread?

Mad Cow might have remained a rare disease were it not for cattle cannibalism. Over the past few decades, it has become a common industrial agricultural practice to process the remains of dead cattle (as well as diseased animals, road kill, dead pets, zoo animals, etc.) into animal feeds that are fed to cattle. Since cattle can become infected by consuming less than 1 gram of diseased tissue, one diseased carcass can contaminate a large batch of animal feed, sickening hundreds of animals. These hundreds, rendered into animal feed in turn, can infect thousands. This is how experts explain the Mad Cow epidemic in Britain.

What is Rendering?

Rendering processes the remaining body parts of cattle once all of the edible parts have been removed. Essentially, the brains, spinal cords, and other sections unfit for human consumption are broken down to create two final products: fat and meat-and-bone meal (MBM). The fat is used in a variety of goods such as soap, lipstick and glue, while MBM, with its powdery consistency and high concentration of protein, is often added to animal feed. Both fat and MBM contain varying amounts of the brain and spinal cord tissue that carries the highest risk of transmitting the disease. In the U.S., these products were legally fed to cattle until 1997; they are still fed to horses, pigs and poultry.

Mad Cow Disease in Humans:

Over 150 people have contracted variant CJD (vCJD), the human disease most closely associated with Mad Cow, by consuming the meat of infected animals: 143 in the UK8, 6 in France, 2 in Canada, and one each in Ireland, Italy and the U.S. vCJD tends to strike young people, is always fatal, and takes about 14 months to kill its victim. Classic or sporadic CJD is of unknown cause and strikes mainly the elderly. Recent evidence that BSE can cause sporadic CJD as well as vCJD10 may explain the rising numbers of CJD cases in Europe, and the disturbing trend to younger CJD cases in the U.S. Several autopsy studies suggest that 3 to 13 percent of patients diagnosed with Alzheimer's or dementia actually suffered from CJD. These findings imply that at least 120,000 CJD cases may be going undetected and excluded from official statistics. If even a small percentage of these misdiagnosed CJD cases are caused by eating BSE-infected meat, the incidence of human Mad Cow is much worse than anyone has imagined up to now. Yet the U.S. Centers for Disease Control still refuse to make CJD a reportable disease.

What Causes Mad Cow and CJD?

Most scientists agree that Mad Cow, CJD and related diseases - including chronic wasting disease, which is spreading among the U.S. deer and elk population - are due to deformed proteins called prions. Prions somehow induce normal brain proteins to become deformed in the same way, causing brain degeneration. Prions are incredibly resistant to heat, chemicals, and even radiation. They cannot be inactivated with disinfection measures used to kill other disease-causing agents like bacteria and viruses.

Is Our Meat Supply Safe?

Prions tend to accumulate in the brain, the spinal cord and other nervous system tissues, the eyes and intestine. Hence, a person who consumes meat that contains these tissues, if derived from an infected animal, could contract the human form of Mad Cow. Brain and spinal cord tissue contaminate meat in three major ways. First, powerful stun guns that shoot 4-inch bolts into a cow's skull prior to slaughter can also drive brain tissue into the animal's lungs and throughout its body, thus contaminating meat that ends up in the supermarket with potentially infective brain tissue. Secondly, T-bone steaks and other cuts that include vertebral bone may contain spinal cord tissue. Finally, meat salvaged from the carcass and vertebral column after the better cuts have been removed by knife often contains spinal and other nervous system tissue. A recent USDA study shows that a shocking 35% of meat samples obtained with the mechanical "advanced meat recovery" (AMR) system used by many slaughter houses are contaminated with unacceptable nervous tissue. AMR meat is commonly found in lower quality meats such as ground beef, sausages and hot dogs, and is served to children nationwide in the school lunch program. It is also found in meat used by fast food chains. About 45 million pounds of AMR meat are produced every year in the U.S.

How can we reduce the risk posed to our health and to farmers?

We propose that the FDA not only strengthen enforcement of the animal feed restrictions, but raise the safety standards to the levels adopted by the E.U. We propose that the USDA test all cattle that are slaughtered for consumption or that die on a farm. Until the safety regulations are strengthened and better enforced, we suggest that meat-eating consumers avoid high-risk beef products and only consume beef from organic, grass-fed cattle or beef alternatives.

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