[March 27, 2004]

The author is a culinary student and originally wrote this article for the Culinary Institute of America’s campus paper, La Papillote. Visit his web site at newintellectual.org.

The U.S. Mad-Cow Scare: Culinary Boogey Man or Emerging Crisis?

By Charles M. Hildreth

Culinarians of all trades who utilize the American beef industry have some new concerns regarding beef.

On December 28, 2003, the first case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), also known as Mad Cow Disease, was reported to have been discovered in the United States.

BSE is a disease of cattle first identified in Britain in 1986. It was later asserted that there was a connection between BSE and a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) in humans. The British government concluded that BSE was probably the cause of nvCJD, and that the victims contracted the disease probably by eating meat from BSE-infected cows.

The claim was based on several factors:

-The nvCJD victims had lived in areas where outbreaks of BSE had occurred in cattle years earlier. No victims were found in areas without BSE outbreaks.

-The brains of nvCJD victims had proteins called "prions" (pronounced "pree-ahnz") that were similar to those from the brains of BSE-infected cows, but different from those found in victims of classic CJD.

-The time between the BSE outbreaks and the deaths of the victims was similar to the time that it takes for Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease to develop.

-Brain tissue from BSE-infected cows caused experimental animals to develop symptoms and brain tissue disorders similar to those of the nvCJD victims. (See Howstuffworks.com)

However, due to scientific technicalities, this claim remains questionable. Since news of the case of BSE in a Canadian-imported, Washington State heifer entered the media, people have been continuously bombarded by news reports, editorials, and campaign attacks against the American beef industry, as well as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), alleging "government corruption" and "corporate greed" for allowing the "American food supply to be tainted". Such ominous attacks are enough to make anyone jump to conclusions without evaluating all the evidence. Still, scientists and private groups specializing in animal studies and food safety tend to disagree with these attacks, saying that the US food supply is safe and that BSE being the cause of nvCJD is an unfounded claim. So who’s right and who’s wrong? Perhaps a better question is: Who’s telling the truth?

Two Sides to the story –

Almost immediately after the USDA announced the case of BSE in Washington State, nearly 50 press releases were issued attempting to influence media coverage. PETA, the Chef's Collaborative, the OCA, and other groups were quoted repeatedly in the news media. Interestingly enough, the president of the company selling Gardenburgers also joined the chorus of knocks against the beef industry. Websites sprouted up out of nowhere, offering copious amounts of information about BSE and its imminent impact on the nation’s food supply. Indeed, many of these sources regarded the single BSE case in Washington as, "poisoning the food supply".

On the other side, a 2001 study by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis called the danger to human health from mad cow disease in the U.S. "extraordinarily low." They reasoned that, along with American beef being the most tightly regulated industry in the nation, the USDA had enacted measures to prevent BSE, taking an example from the crisis that had been plaguing England for years.

The news media also devoted a small amount of attention to scientists over activists. The Daily Oklahoman ran a front-page story on the subject on April 5, 1999, in which Dr. Roger Brumback, a pathology professor at the University of Oklahoma, stated:

"To suddenly call Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease the human form of mad cow disease is incorrect or, at best, misleading." Brumback continued, "Most people get CJD because they’re born with a genetic defect or as a result of a spontaneous genetic mutation." In that same article, Dr. J. Donald Capra, president of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, Declared that there is no link between mad cow disease and CJD. "There’s conjecture, there’s speculation, but there’s no scientific proof."

The Hard Science –

The real heart of legitimate scientific debate over BSE’s supposed link to nvCJD is the nature of the disease itself. The dominant camp asserts that "Mad Cow Disease" and other T.S.E.s are caused by a new kind of infectious agent: a form of protein called a prion.

According to the prion hypothesis, formulated by American neurologist and biochemist Stanley Prusiner, the prion is thought to attach itself to a normal PrP protein molecule, convert it into another prion, and repeat this operation slowly but indefinitely. The resulting prions attach to each other, and form clumps called ‘plaques’, which damage nervous tissue.

The problem with this theory, allege other scientists, is that the prions seem to be devoid of any nucleic acid, the essential part of any protein which contains its genetic code. Without nucleic matter, current scientific knowledge regards any actions by prions as nonsensical; every entity able to reproduce itself must contain a nucleic acid, as far as modern science is concerned

The issue is further complicated by the fact that all traditional methods of destroying nucleic acids have no effect on these T.S.E. agents alleged to cause disease in a new host. And, infected organisms produce no antibodies against it. Scientists have offered the example of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV); even HIV positive patients show signs of an antibody response to the virus.

Scientists refuting Prusiner’s findings argue two main points. First, the idea of prions goes against all current scientific knowledge regarding proteins. The existence of prions would cause a paradigm shift in the way we look at science and the known universe, and therefore, they say, Prusiner has not demonstrated enough conclusive evidence to found such a claim. Second, Prusiner has not demonstrated Koch’s postulates, an established procedure for identifying pathogens. They are: proving that the agent is present in every case of the disease; isolating the agent from the host and growing it independently; producing the disease by inoculating a pure culture of the agent into a healthy host; and recovering the same agent from the experimentally infected host.

With all the contention in the scientific community as to the exact nature of the proteins found in BSE infected cows, as well as those found in CJD and nvCJD infected humans, any positive statement regarding BSE as a cause of nvCJD in humans is as yet, mere speculation. And yet, the popular claim amongst interested parties is that BSE does indeed, effect humans. So what is the origin of the discrepancy?

Public Relations and the Culture of FEAR –

In analyzing the information coming from parties critical of the beef industry and the USDA/FDA methods of BSE prevention, one discovers some illuminating facts.

To begin with, the initial presence of "mad-cow scare" related topics in the media, prior to the single BSE case in the US, involved the McEwen lawsuits. The lawsuits regarded the 1999 CJD-related death of a young man, Doug McEwen, and were aimed at forcing the US government to vastly increase already stringent BSE preventive regulations on the beef industry. Based on the fact that McEwen was an avid-hunter, and succumbed to CJD at an unusually young age, reporters concocted an unsupported story that his death was the result of meat from "mad-deer" in Canada and the western US. With the growing media presence of this story, Environmental Media Services (EMS) became involved, claiming that deer and elk had at some point developed and epidemic of a chronic wasting disease (CWD), and believed it to be linked to CJD in humans. EMS made sure to note CWD’s likeness to BSE. EMS is an operation run by David Fenton’s public relations firm, Fenton Communications.

Nevertheless, scientists differentiated between CWD and BSE. Dr. Paul Brown of the FDA stated at an FDA panel meeting, "to date there’s no identified instance of disease in human beings attributed to chronic wasting disease, either through contact [with sick animals] or through consumption."

As the media stories of CWD, BSE, and CJD evolved, more of the same interested parties kept popping up. Members of CJD Voice and the CJD Foundation (both center around education and support for families touched by CJD) were involved in the lawsuits, especially CJD Foundation founder Cecile Sardo, who was a plaintiff.

EMS was the primary promoter of a CJD Foundation conference in May 2000, as well as being a distributor of information regarding the McEwen lawsuits. So on this point, both the noted CJD organizations, instrumental in the kickoff of BSE-scare related news events, are directly linked to David Fenton’s public relations ventures. Also, EMS has been consistent in its support of only four supposed BSE experts in their media presence regarding the issue.

One such expert is Dr. Thomas Pringle. But he has been called several things: a biochemist studying TSEs, a biologist, an "expert" on mad-cow disease, and a scientific consultant for the Sperling Foundation, described as a "charitable public health organization." Along with the irregularity of these titles, there has been no media attention paid to the nature of the Sperling Biomedical Foundation, or its funding. All that is widely known is that Dr. Pringle, along with his brother John, and one Doug Heiken, are the only officers of the foundation. Doug Heiken is also regional director for a radical environmentalist group known as the Oregon Natural Resources Council. Further, the IRS reports that the Sperling foundation is conservation-oriented, and has nothing to do with medical or scientific research. Incidentally, the self-professed "official mad-cow information website", www.mad-cow.org, is run by Sperling.

The long and short of it is, the interested parties driving the media presence of the "mad-cow scare" in the US are all familiar with each other, and are ultimately linked to David Fenton’s EMS. In light of the known relationships of these parties, the mad-cow scare appears to be more of a public relations campaign, likely bankrolled by organic food interests, than merely innocent activists. If this sounds implausible, consider a statement by one known organic activist, Sheldon Rampton, to the San Francisco Examiner. On the topic of mad cow disease, his advice to the public was, "Buy organic food whenever possible, because it’s grown according to standards that don’t involve factory farming."

Ironically, for Rampton, the first case of BSE in Germany, discovered by Dr. Ulrich Spengler, originated in a slaughterhouse using organic beef. So-called factory farms aren’t the only ones with problems.

The Facts –

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that as of December 1, 2003, a total of 153 cases of nvCJD have been reported in the world: 143 from the United Kingdom, six from France, and one each from Canada, Ireland, Italy, and the United States. They also note that the Canadian, Irish, and U.S. cases were reported in persons who resided in the United Kingdom during a key exposure period of the U.K. population to the BSE agent. Further, almost all the 153 vCJD patients had multiple-year exposures in the United Kingdom between 1980 and 1996 during the occurrence of a large UK outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, commonly known as mad cow disease) among cattle.

BSE only resides in brain and spinal cord matter, not in the meat. The common suggestion is that, during slaughter, meat is contaminated. When a cow is stunned by a blow to the head, it is thought that brain and spinal matter may break apart and taint surrounding meat. Those parts of the carcass can be used for ground meat, and therefore, ground meat is considered potentially hazardous. Still, in scientific terms, this claim is groundless.

A ban on using ground up meat/bone/blood/etc. from ruminants (four-stomached animals) for feed meal has been in effect in England and the US since the onset of the mad-cow crisis in Europe. This prevents the spread of BSE, and ultimately, should bring it to a halt.

USDA inspectors routinely inspect brain matter samples from cows who suffered deaths attributed to neurological disorders. They have also banned the use of cattle brains and spinal cords from use in the human food supply.

Conclusion –

What can we, as culinarians in the food industry, deduce from all this information? Several objective facts clearly must be kept in mind.

1. Science is the method by which we determine objective facts regarding health. To this day, there is no conclusive evidence that BSE is transmissible to humans, nor that nvCJD is in any way related to any case of mad-cow disease. While coincidence cannot be ignored, there have only been 153 cases of nvCJD that are suspect. That number, alongside the millions of tested cattle and the thousands of incinerated infected cattle, is a long way away from offering any significant coincidental evidence as to any conclusion regarding BSE and its relation to nvCJD.

2. The media presence of the mad-cow scare has its origin in sources that have a biased agenda. They all are in some way, linked directly or indirectly to parties interested in widening the sale of organic foods. While this says nothing positive or negative about the legitimacy of the organic food industry, it does remind us that advertising comes in many forms, and it is apparent that much of the information regarding BSE in the news has its roots in public relations planning, not in pure activism, nor in science.

3. The food industry in America is closely scrutinized by all sides, including the government. The regulation of this industry’s practices have always been strict, were made stricter still at the time of the British beef crisis, and are still being tightened to this day, in response to growing concerns regarding BSE. Claims from any group that the American food supply is less than safe should be critically scrutinized.

4. While it would be scientifically incorrect for anyone to claim that mad-cow disease is definitely linked to nvCJD, and is a clear and present danger to consumers, it would be imprudent to assume that there is no danger. Until BSE is completely explained by science, it is only rational for consumers and food industry professionals alike to take caution in regards to beef. No other country’s standards for safety in regards to cattle are as high as those in the US. Therefore, it is rational to utilize American beef, and to steer clear of anything but muscle meat, and high quality ground meat.


The following websites offer good information of the subject of mad-cow disease, and were among the sources researched for this article:

http://www.fsis.usda.gov/index.htm - USDA source

http://science.howstuffworks.com/mad-cow-disease.htm/printable - How Stuff Works

http://www.consumerfreedom.com/report_madcow.cfm?PAGE=3 – Consumer Freedom

http://www.cdc.gov/ - The CDC

http://www.bseinfo.org/ - BSE Info


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© COPYRIGHT 2004 by Charles M. Hildreth. Visit his website at www.newintellectual.org.