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Mad Cow Disease

To Our Readers

By PAM BERNS

It didn't have to happen here. The release of meat from a mad cow in the United States and the resulting market tumble could have been avoided.

Since 1996, Chicago Life has been reporting on the inadequate precautions taken by our government to protect citizens in our country and countries we trade with from eating meat from animals who have BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy)-mad cow disease. At that time, John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, co-authors of Mad Cow U.S.A., warned us that unless stringent safeguards were adopted in our country, the calamity that happened in England could happen here. As England's leaders denied they had a problem, their country's beef industry was nearly destroyed: 120 English people died of CJD, the human equivalent of mad cow, after ingesting BSE- contaminated meat. Since then, England, as well as many countries including Japan, have ceased feeding animal waste to livestock and have begun testing all mature cattle.

The meat market was not the only industry that suffered in Great Britain. Blood banks in England could not use their own human blood for transfusions because people who have contracted nvCJD (the new variant human form of mad cow) may have given blood. Laboratory tests have found that tainted blood may transmit these diseases, says Stauber.

In 1996, Stauber and Rampton warned us that just halting the feeding of beef waste to cattle while permitting feeding of this waste to pigs and other non-ruminant animals would not protect our food supply because pig waste could then be fed back to cattle, transmitting BSE back to cattle. They also said that the practice of weaning calves on bovine blood was risky. Stauber and Rampton advised the complete ban of feeding any meat waste to animals. They also suggested testing of all slaughtered cattle before they entered the meat market.

Chicago Life wrote an update after the discovery of a mad cow in Alberta, Canada, in May 2003. Titled "It's Still a Cow Eat Cow World" in our Fall issue, we again interviewed John Stauber and asked him why our government was not adopting the same rules as the European Union to protect Americans from mad cow disease.

"It is important to realize that this is not a Canadian problem-it is a North American problem," warned Stauber. "This cow might just as well have come from Juarez, Mexico, or from Sonoma, Calif., because cattle, cattle feed and meat products flow freely across the borders of the three NAFTA nations. In all three countries, unlike Britain and Europe, cattle are still fed rendered byproduct, which is animal feed made from slaughterhouse waste. As we documented in Mad Cow U.S.A., the U.S. government and the livestock industry manipulated and misled reporters and the public in 1997 when they claimed to have ended the practice of feeding slaughterhouse waste to livestock. The practice has never even slowed down, and today billions of pounds of blood, fat, meat, bone meal and such are legally fed back to livestock. Until that practice is completely banned, the mad cow problem in North America will likely spread and worsen, although rather invisibly."

When we asked Stauber what immediate actions should be taken to avoid an outbreak of mad cow disease here, he responded, "What the U.S., Canada and Mexico must do is very simple. These NAFTA nations must put in place the same regulations that have succeeded in preventing additional cases of mad cow disease in Britain and Europe. This would mean completely banning the practice of feeding any slaughterhouse waste back to livestock, and testing every animal before it is eaten."

"Government and industry know what to do, but they refuse to do it because feeding this waste back to livestock is so lucrative and helps the U.S. produce cheap meat and milk," Stauber added. "So instead of doing the right thing, government and industry have permitted gaps in the defenses against this disease to appease industry."

John Stauber is not the only expert concerned about the transmission of mad cow in the United States. The New York Times reported that Dr. Stanley Prusiner-the Nobel Prize-winning neurologist who first identified the abnormally-folded proteins, "prions," that cause madness and death in its victims-tried to warn Ann Veneman, the secretary of agriculture, about the safety of U.S. meat after mad cow was found in a Canadian cow in May 2003. He urged her to begin testing every cow for BSE before the meat entered the marketplace.

The measures announced by Veneman on December 30 still leave gaping holes in protecting the public and the meat industry. Merely testing cattle over 30 months of age may still not catch all cattle with BSE. Japan tests every cow-not just older "downer" cows-at slaughter. Japan has found young cows with BSE, even though the cows appeared to have no obvious symptoms.

The United States tests a tiny fraction of 1 percent of its cattle. We then say we haven't found evidence of widespread mad cow here. What would happen if we tested 100 percent of our cattle? "The U.S. livestock industry is terrified of testing millions of animals because testing would likely find the disease," says Stauber.

There are new tests available that can test thousands of cattle in hours. These tests would not hold up production and would give citizens and international markets peace of mind. The costs of added testing would be minimal.

There is no reason why the agriculture department or the FDA cannot mandate these additional immediate steps to protect us-and the market:

A) Outlaw cannibalistic practices of feeding slaughterhouse waste to animals. As Stauber says, "You might not be a vegetarian, but the animals you eat must be.

B) Test every cow, regardless of age, at slaughter before the meat gets into the market.

Approximately one in a million animals have spontaneous spongiform encephalopathies. By outlawing cannibalistic practices, including weaning calves on cattle blood plasma, we would be able to halt the transmission of these sporatic cases into the food chain.

As Dr. Prusiner told The New York Times,

"We want to keep prions out of the mouths of humans. We don't know what this might be doing to us. Science is capable of finding out how serious the problem is, but only government can mandate the solutions."

On another note, one ill-advised government solution concerning the suspected carcinogenic fuel additive, MTBE, was nearly passed in a proposed energy bill last December.

In our Summer 2000 issue, Chicago Life reported that MTBE had contaminated 1,500 United States communities' water supplies. Removing MTBE in contaminated wells and aquifers will cost $29-$36 billion. The proposed energy bill that was almost passed by Congress smells like one more sweetheart deal for a handful of petrochemical companies. The proposed bill would have protected manufacturers of MTBE from product liability lawsuits, leaving taxpayers in local municipalities devastated from huge clean-up costs. Meanwhile, the bill would "phase out" MTBE use by 2015. The proposed bill would have also given

$1 billion to the MTBE makers.

Why should an additive that tastes like turpentine and is suspected to cause cancer be legally permitted to continue contaminating U.S. drinking water for another decade?-Pam Berns

If you would like to read more on mad cow, Stauber and Rampton's Mad C ow U.S.A. can be downloaded for free at www.prwatch.org.

Published: February 01, 2004