When the first U.S. mad cow was found in late 2003, 98 percent of U.S. beef exports evaporated overnight. There was such national revulsion to cow "cannibalism" when described in the late 1990s as the presumed cause of the fatal disease, Oprah Winfrey said she would never eat a hamburger again and was promptly sued by Texas cattle producers. They lost.
But this month a fourth U.S. death from the human version of mad cow, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), in Texas barely made the news. Neither did the recall of 4,000 pounds of "organic" beef possibly contaminated with mad cow (bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE) shipped to Whole Foods and two restaurants, in New York and Kansas City, Mo. The restaurant meat was eaten before the recall, speculated one news source.
What has changed? Health officials, overtly protecting the meat industry, have succeeded in spinning the disease so it is now considered something that "just happens" rather than a grave breakdown of our agricultural system.
Mad cow and CJD are fatal transmissible spongiform encephalopathies thought to be caused by infectious particles called prions. Though prions are not technically "alive" because they lack a nucleus, they manage to reproduce and are almost impossible to "kill." They are not inactivated by cooking, heat, autoclaves, ammonia, bleach, hydrogen peroxide, alcohol, phenol, lye, formaldehyde or radiation and they remain in the soil for years. Yet the two government centers charged with safeguarding us from mad cow and CJD are embarrassingly incompetent.
Neurologist Ron Bailey says he was told by the National Prion Disease Pathology Surveillance Center (NPDPSC) in Cleveland that tissue samples from his patient, 49-year-old Patrick Hicks, could not be tested to see if he had sporadic CJD (not caused by meat) or vCJD because the tissue samples were not kept properly as they were obtained from"1-800-Autopsy. Yes, you read that right. Prion-containing waste was dumped into the city sewage system charged workers at the National Animal Disease Center in Ames, Iowa.
And there are other reasons to doubt government safeguards. When a woman was hospitalized in Amarillo in 2008 with possible vCJD, causing beef futures markets to plummet at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Ted McCollum, with the Amarillo office of Texas AgriLife Extension, reassured the public that the woman's case was sporadic CJD, not from beef, before tests were even done.
In accounting for the first U.S. mad cow, found in Washington state in 2003, the government said, "By December 27, 2003, FDA had located all potentially infectious product rendered from the BSE-positive cow in Washington State. This product was disposed of in a landfill in accordance with Federal, State and local regulations" But the Los Angeles Times reported that despite "a voluntary recall aimed at recovering all 10,000 pounds of beef slaughtered at the plant the day the Washington state cow was killed, some meat, which could have contained the Washington cow, was sold to restaurants in several Northern California counties." The San Francisco Chronicle reported that 11 restaurants and a food market purchased soup bones from "the suspect lot" in Alameda and Santa Clara counties and that their identities were being withheld.