Saturday, June 25, 2005

A Meditation On Hamburger


First, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) is one form of a group of brain-wasting diseases known as Transmissable Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSEs) that is most likely caused by a mustant protein called a prion. It is related to the human Creuztfeld-Jacob Disease (CJD)--which takes various forms--and to kuru, which was orginally first discovered in a cannibal people, the Fore of New Guinea, back in the 50's. It was found to be passed by eating infected tissue, particularly brain tissue. When humans eat animal tissue infected with BSE, they can develop new variant Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease (vCJD).

Animals and humans who contract these diseases will die--no ifs, ands, or buts. They are long-developing diseases, so one may not become symptomatic for 4-20 years, or longer. It is a horrible death. The brain literally evaporates, as the proteins erode the tissues and leave holes till it eventually resembles a sponge, hence the name. Once the symptoms show, the victim loses mind, movement, sight, hearing, and then mercifully dies in a matter of months.

The easiest way to contract vCJD from eating infected meat is by eating hamburger or other ground/mixed meat that has been formed prior to your buying it. The process used to stun the animals, and of separating and grinding the meat after hand de-boning, often leaves or spreads brain and spinal tissue through the meat. Eating large chucks of muscle meat, like steak, chops, or roasts almost eliminates the possibility of ingesting stray neurological tissue.


Yesterday evening I first saw it. An almost harmless-looking little blurb in the NYTimes Science Section headed: "Tests Confirm 2nd Case of Mad Cow Disease in U.S." It went on to say that the USDA had confirmed that a cow had died last November of the disease, but as it hadn't entered the food chain, all was well. In fact, the animal had tested inconclusively for the disease. Additional testing was done in England, where they take such things seriously, and the test proved positive. Our Secretary for Agriculture had this to say:
""We are currently testing nearly 1,000 animals per day" as part of the program to detect mad cow disease, Mr. Johanns said. He added that scientists had performed more than 388,000 total tests. "This is the first confirmed case resulting from our surveillance.
"I am encouraged that our interlocking safeguards are working exactly as intended," he said. "This animal was blocked from entering the food supply because of the firewalls we have in place. Americans have every reason to continue to be confident in the safety of our beef."
Mr. Johanns also said that beginning immediately, if another cow disease screening test results in inconclusive findings, the department would run two kinds of tests, including the "Western blot" test conducted in England and an immunohistochemistry test."
In another article the Times ran the same day, the cow in question was said to be a beef cow 8 years of age (very old for an animal raised for beef) and that it was slaughtered at a pet food plant. It was old enough to have been born before a 1997 ban on recycling cattle remains in cattle feed, which is a key vector for the disease. All should be well, right?

Except that Johanns' assurance about testing and safeguards and firewalls rings a little hollow when you compare his testing numbers ("nearly 1000 animals a day") with the truly vast numbers--30 million a year--being slaughtered. This means more than 461,538 cattle,or almost half a million, are killed daily. A thousand cows tested a day is only 2/10ths of 1% of the total animals killed every year, which leaves a lot to slip through the firewall. Former Ag Sec Ann Veneman had an opportunity to do something about this when the first incidence of mad cow was reported in December 2003, but chose not to, flacking instead for the cattle industry and the Bushco party line, and instituing the tiny inspection program currently in place, not to protect consumers but to ease fears of foreign beef buyers for the sake of the industry.

Further, cattle blood is still added to feed, and despite a supposed ban on using them for food, downer cows are still not taken seriously. Imagine yourself a farmer, and that you saw a sickly cow falling to the ground or staggering weirdly around your herd. Upon examination, you found it appeared very ill, perhaps on the verge of death. Would you then go ahead and kill it and set it on your family's table? This is what the USDA has allowed for decades, and only recently begun to limit. It is the downer cows who are tested, and not all of them. Then, tucked into the very bottom of the second article was this:
"USDA officials said the new BSE case was a different strain from the first U.S. case and the outbreak that occurred in Britain in the 1980s. Some experts had speculated the conflicting test results were due to an unusual type of BSE."
Which raise the chilling possibility that the form has mutated into yet another variant.

Then, in a follow-up article that mostly elaborates on the reports of yesterday, the foul-ups of the testing and protocols followed were laid out: the cow was "too crippled to walk" when it was killed; the cow was tested twice by Elisa and found positive, then once by the "gold standard" and found negative, then again by an "enhanced, experimental" version of the gold standard and found positive; the methods of handling and storing tissues was badly violated and compromised; no records were kept.

After all this, the USDA Inspector General ordered a Western blot test, the good one used by the Europeans and British, and confirmed a positive. Johanns, who has your welfare at heart, was ticked that this last test was ordered without his knowledge, though if it hadn't been, you would not likely have heard about any of this. And as was noted in the article, it took them 7 months to get around to this testing, and no written records were even kept.

Last Year

If you regularly read my stuff, you know how I caution against giving this administration credence when it comes to any form of communication, but especially that related to science. Back on January 3, 2004, I sent the following to Josh Micah Marshall of Talking Points Memo:

"Dear Josh ---
I'm sending this to you because you may be able to get the word out. In the wake of the discovery of BSE in the U.S. cow, Bush's agriculture department has done everything it can to maintain a "no sweat" face to the rest of us. Of course panic should be controlled,and people should be educated about what it means. What they shouldn't be is lied to, and that is exactly what the government is doing here. Despite the CDC's own report on the occurence of vCJD (the variant that infects humans who eat BSE meat) in Florida in fall 2002, also echoed by the Wolrd Health Org., their layman's FAQ section denies any such incidence. If they lie to us about this, how much can we trust them with our lives?

At the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Report, back on May 12, 2003.

And also at the WHO website, revised as of November, 2002. the consumer-friendly CDC website for dummies."
He responded with:
"i'm not sure i understand. are you saying that they're denying a proven link between BSE and CJD? "
Which I wasn't, and so followed up with this:
"I don't think they're denying a link exists between BSE and vCJD. Too much credible scientific research, in and out of the US, has proven it, and they acknowledge this in their MMWR. But I think they're flat-out lying on their website(there--I've said it!) by stating that a case of vCJD has never occurred in this country. This is clearly untrue,and they know it. Hell, they reported it, and WHO followed up. But this switchback may be quibbling on their part. The incubation period can be very long---9-15 years---before signs of the disase finally show, though once signs appear, death usually happens very quickly, in about 6 months. The kid who was confirmed with the disease down in Florida in 2002 was originally from England, and moved to this country in 1992. Although he could have contracted it while still in the UK, it's also possible he contracted it here because he was here for 10 years before he showed. But by rejecting that possiblity and framing it as a non-native incidence, they could justify claiming that there have been no occurrences in the US.
Considering Bush's people's penchant for twisting science and bowdlerizing scientific information to suit their political and religious wolrdview as they have done on the NIH website and elsewhere, not to mention their earnest desire to keep the National Cattlemen's happy, I think this bodes ill for the chances that we'll get upfront, honest information and real protection from them in this matter. The point is, while this may seem like a relatively inconsequential bit of cognitive dissonance by the CDC, I fear something much worse being withheld or covered up down the road, if not already."

What To Do

At the very least, avoid pre-made burgers. Shop, if you can, at farmer's markets where you can meet and get to know local farmers and butchers, and know where your meat comes from. Have it ground there, or buy a grinder or Kitchen-Aid attachment and start making your own burger and sausage from larger cuts of meat. Not only will you be doing your body a favor, you may be supporting more humane farming and you'll definitely be eating better-tasting food.


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