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            A L L I A N C E ! A Revolutionary Communist Quarterly
                    2004: Volume 2: Issue 4

American Mad Cow Disease.

(By M.P.)



The safety of meat and the ability of the government to protect the public when business oppose safety measures have again been called into question.  Mad Cow Disease threatens our lives, pets, and agricultural livelihoods.  Risky practices and the interrelationship of capitalist government and powerful business interests has combined with the ecology of this emerging disease to cause a crisis in which huge numbers of cattle worldwide were infected, at least 155 people died from a human form of the disease, and the beef industry in several countries was ruined.  This is not just a European problem.  The appearance of mad cow disease in Canadian cattle in May 20, 2003 and the first confirmed case in the United States December 23, 2003 should be a warning.  In Europe, Japan, Canada, and the United States, government agencies that were supposed to keep food safe favored beef sales instead and missed chances for prevention.  

The Biology of 'Mad Cow" Diseases

Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), or Mad Cow Disease, has been diagnosed in about 170,000 British cattle, out of an estimated 1 million cattle infected with the disease since it was first identified in November 1986.  At its peak in January 1993 1000 new cases were discovered each week.  The British mad cow crisis cost $10 billion dollars or more.  Two million cattle were culled.  Humans with a new variant of a fatal disease similar to BSE, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), most likely contracted it from infected cattle.  Variant CJD first appeared in 1994 and was recognized as a new form of CJD in 1996.  Fortunately earlier estimates of dozens to millions of cases of vCJD in the UK have been reduced; a 2003 estimate is 10 to 2600 more cases and a few hundred cases is the most likely total ( (CD), February 18, 2004 and How the Cows Turned Mad, Maxime Schwartz, 2003).  The discovery of an infected cow in the US caused a 20% drop in cattle prices and caused 43 countries to ban American beef, sales of which amounted to $3.2 billion dollars annually.  The USA provided 1/4th of the world’s beef supply.  Canada has lost $3 billion in sales and 30 countries boycotted Canadian beef.     


Consumption of diseased remains animal causes BSE, but it can also be spread maternally.  BSE and CJD are 100% fatal, degenerative neurological diseases grouped with similar diseases as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs).  There is now good evidence that misfolded; self-replicating proteins called prions (proteinaceous infectious particles) cause the TSEs.  Normal prions are produced naturally by some cells and are used in cell membranes.  These cells are not able to break down the pathogenic prions, resulting in affected cells being choked by prions and then destroyed by the body.  The destruction of many nerve cells leads to the characteristic spongy holes in the brains of mammals infected with TSEs.  There are several human TSEs, a feline TSE that first appeared in Britain in 1990 and is thought to have come from BSE, scrapie, which afflicts sheep and goats, and chronic wasting disease, which affects elk and deer in North America.  Other animals related to cattle, as well as primates, cat species, and possibly a species of ostrich can get BSE (demonstrating that birds can be infected).  Sheep can be infected orally in experiments.  Pigs can be infected with BSE in the lab, but not orally.  Pigs are usually slaughtered at 5 months old, before they would manifest symptoms of a TSE and they are kept in confined pens that would prevent them from exhibiting some behavioral symptoms.  There was even a possible case of a pig TSE in New York, but the US Department of Agriculture refuses to release its records.  Chickens may be susceptible or be prion carriers and might pass prions through their digestive tract without inactivating them (CD, January 7, 2004 and Deadly Feasts, Richard Rhodes, 1997).  Fish, frogs, and turtles have prions but it is not known whether they can have prion diseases; maybe they do not live long enough to show symptoms. US regulations allow the feeding of potentially diseased cattle remains to other meat animals and these remains of non-ruminant can then be fed back to cattle.  Dogs apparently are immune to BSE.


The BSE agent can survive UV and other kinds of radiation, high temperatures, as well as formaldehyde making it virtually impossible to remove from food.  This is similar to the properties of the scrapie prion.  Sheep grazing on contaminated land can contract scrapie because its agent can survive years of burial and freezing, as well as acids.  Fortunately BSE does not appear to be capable of infecting pastures, but there are concerns that sheep may be susceptible to BSE contamination or that the cattle prions could develop this property.  Their resiliency allows infectious prions to survive the rendering process (basically pressure cooking) used to produce livestock feeds.     


Mad cow disease may have first arisen from a bovine that developed virulent prions spontaneously, cost-cutting in the livestock feed rendering process during the 70’s and 80’s that allowed a strain of scrapie to pass into cattle feed, or even from the prions of six white tigers that died during the 70’s at the Bristol Zoo (Schwartz, 2003).  There is evidence that 1 in a million cows develop BSE spontaneously, the same pattern seen in humans with classic CJD (Rhodes 1997).  Cattle with BSE do not show symptoms until a few years after exposure so the contaminated feed should have been first produced in 1981-82.  During the early 80’s livestock feed renderers stopped using organic solvents to extract tallow, which reduced the heat required in production and could have allowed prions to survive in fat.  This change made production cheaper and easier and was safer for workers, but it is also likely that it let BSE loose. The reason BSE first became a crisis in Britain might be because BSE more easily infects young animals and the British fed animal-based feeds to calves, while in other countries these feeds are given to adult cattle, especially dairy cattle (Schwartz, 2003).   


Feeding meat to herbivores dates from at least the 19th century but increased in the mid-20th century.  Completely plant-based livestock feed costs up to 30% more than animal-based feeds and probably provide less protein.  There might have been BSE cases in 1913 in Britain (but there are doubts that it was BSE) and as the cause of mink TSE outbreaks in the USA in 1947, 1963, and 1985.  The 1985 outbreak occurred at a mink farm where the mink had been fed downers from a nearby dairy farm (Rhodes, 1997).  Some of the continuing cases of British BSE could potentially be caused by contamination of pastures with prions. 


Bovine brain, spinal cord, nerves, eyes, and small intestine are particularly dangerous and dairy cattle 3-6 years old are most at risk.  Mad cow disease takes 2 ˝ to 8 years to produce symptoms in cattle but it can take less than 2 ˝ years.  Beef is supposed to be relatively safe since BSE is a neural disease and milk seems to be free of prions. American slaughterhouses use a stunning method that can allow neural tissue into the blood of a slaughtered cow and meat processing contaminates meat with potentially diseased tissue (CD newswire, December 30, 2003).  Bovine products are used in foods as well as cosmetics, medicines, dental and ophthalmic devices, heart valves, soap, etc.     


VCJD incubates silently for 5 to 20 years or longer after infection.  VCJD’s first symptoms are depression, schizophrenia, hallucinations, or sensory irregularities (which usually occur late in classic CJD cases) followed weeks or months later by difficulty coordinating muscles, muscle spasms, and confusion.  The disease worsens and victims lose the ability to name things, read, write, speak, or move and die on average 13 months after the illness appears (classic CJD averages 6 months).  Differences in nerve impulses detected by EEG are one way of telling VCJD from classic CJD.  The average age of classic CJD victims is 65 while the average age for vCJD is 29 but its victims range from age 12 to 52.  Only dead animals can be tested for TSEs with current technology.  Treatments are being developed but so far TSEs are incurable and no vaccines exist.  85-90% of CJD appears spontaneously, 5-10% is genetic, and the rest is caused by accidental transmission by medical error.  British VCJD might have come from baby food that was contaminated with cattle brain tissue, since younger animals are more susceptible and muscle tissue is not very infective (Schwartz, 2003).  British cuisine also includes risky meat products other than beef.  The human prion gene varies slightly and having a certain form of this gene increases one’s susceptibility to infection because a closer match between the sequences of the infectious and host prions allows easier conversion of prions to a pathogenic form.

Recent Patterns of Infection


We are in the dark about the pattern of CJD cases in the USA because physicians are not required to report it in all states.  Studies in the 80’s found that 13 to 20 % of Alzheimer’s cases in the USA are actually cases of CJD.  About 4 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, and this number is increasing, while about 364,000 Canadians have the disease or a similar dementia.  Several percent of dementia cases are actually misdiagnosed CJD according to several studies in the late 80’s.  CJD in young people can be mistaken for multiple sclerosis or severe infection.  The USA’s National Prion Disease Center established in 1997 to monitor CJD examines too few cases and the government only passively tracks CJD by examining death certificates.  The Center is also unknown to many doctors (CD, January 7, 2004).  Between 1979 and 1996 only one American under 30 is reported to have died of CJD while from 1997 to 2001 5 died, which could be of concern.  There are annually about 250 CJD cases in the USA and 30 in Canada.  So far all VCJD cases from North America have been traced back to the UK.     


 In December 2003 a 6˝-year-old adult downer dairy cow originally from Canada was slaughtered in Washington State and used in human food and rendering.  The USDA examined the cow alive and dead but the cow was processed before tests were completed.  A downer is a cow or steer that cannot walk on its own.  There are allegations that the veterinarian in charge falsified records afterward, potentially on pressure from a superior, because the cow was not a downer, which would show the flaw with the USDA’s original downer only BSE testing program (CD, March 4, 2004).  The cow’s brain and spinal cord were rendered for non-ruminant animal feed and her meat went to 8 western states and Guam, but most was sent Washington and Oregon.  Most or all of the meat was recovered and the rendered products were not sold.  The 81 other cattle that came to the United States from Alberta province in Canada September 4, 2001 were found, as were two calves from this cow.  It is not known how this cow got BSE or what other herds were exposed if there was contaminated feed.  Canada’s two previous cases both exhibited different symptoms from European BSE and could represent an American form of the disease.  About 200,000 downer cattle killed in the USA each year of which most are old dairy animals.  A German study in 2001 found that downers were 240 times more likely to have BSE than other cattle.  Dairy farmers are forced to squeeze as much profit out of their herds as possible because they make little profit and may have $1500 to $2000 dollars of debt per cow.  One reason for this is that farmers face only a few buyers – 85 % of beef is bought by only four companies (CD, December 30, 2003).    


Regulatory Boards
After this incident regulatory changes were made but there were prior rules to prevent BSE.  Cattle and other ruminant animals from countries with BSE were banned from import in 1989 and products that might infect animals here were banned from import in 1991.  Cattle remains, excepting blood, were banned in cattle feed in 1997.  In 2001 some mammalian protein was banned from feed and non-foods.  Animal-based pet foods cannot be imported from at-risk countries.  Shortly after the BSE case at risk tissues from cattle 30 months or older and the small intestines of any bovine were banned from human foods, as well as meat from uninspected cattle or cattle that die before slaughter. Cross-contamination of feeds with bovine products has been banned.  A national cattle identification system is being worked on; previously meat industry groups successfully opposed it.  Cattle can no longer be certified as free of BSE, as happened in Washington, until they are confirmed BSE-free.  On December 30, 2003 downer cattle were banned from food and cosmetics. Downers are still allowed in pet foods.  The inclusion of nerves and bone tissue in meat cut from bone with high pressure was banned.   Mechanically separated meat was banned from food, as it has been in Europe, because it can contain nerve tissue.  The use of bovine blood, poultry litter (garbage from chicken farms), and human leftovers in cattle feed was banned.  The Food and Drug Administration plans to inspect all renderers and feed mills yearly.  The FDA will conduct 2,800 more inspections of feed producers, hire 3100 more contract inspectors, and enlist 300 state inspectors.  The USDA is testing more cattle to see if BSE exists here natively.  The government believes the need for bovine-derived vaccines outweighs the risk. 


Despite their appearance, these new rules are full of holes because of a lack of will and funding and they do not protect against BSE infecting other livestock.  The rules were not well enforced prior to the mad cow case.  The government lacked a list of rendering companies until recently and in 2001 the GAO found that 1/5th of renderers could not guarantee against cross-contamination of feeds and 1/4th of those in Colorado alone did not know about rules four years old.  As of 2001 breaking the new feed rules only resulted in a verbal warning and a request for a recall.  The FDA says compliance at feed mills is now 99%.  Slaughterhouses were visited haphazardly and USDA veterinarians are not given very much instruction on identifying BSE.  Veterinarians were even discouraged from discussing BSE for years (CD, January 4, 2004).  In 1990 only 10-20 cows were tested per year.  From 1990 to 2003 only 57,000 cattle were tested out of 400 million killed.  In 2000 there was a 200 to 400-fold difference in the number of cattle tested per state and only 2600 animals out of 35,416,200 slaughtered were tested.  In 2003 20,543 cattle out of 35 million killed were tested for BSE and only 10-15% of downers were tested. In Texas a cow possibly having a neurological disease, such as BSE, was slaughtered without brain sample being taken by the presiding USDA veterinarian and another veterinarian says officials sometimes ignore requests to test a cow, especially if is older than 30 months (CD, May 5, 200[3]). Slaughterhouse workers are not in a position to help safeguard food because these jobs have high-turnover, very low pay, and are often done by undocumented immigrants who do not speak English.  Inspectors are not allowed to extensively examine products for safety.  USDA food inspectors allege that officials often force them to sign export certificates falsely claiming that American products meet foreign regulations (CD, April 24, 2004).  If falsification is happening in export might it not be happening domestically as well?   Banned foreign products presumably enter this country.  The USDA was unable to produce the documentation showing increased testing planned before the BSE case (CD, December 24, 2003).    


To deal with any problems, the USDA cannot force recall of contaminated meat.  During the period from 1990-97 only 43% of meat recalled by producers was recovered.  Only states that have signed a secrecy agreement with the USDA receive information about what retailers have received recalled beef or poultry.  The White House recently tried to gain control over recalls and other warnings, as well as the peer review of government research, by giving its Office of Management and Budget final say over their release (CD, January 4, 2004).      


The agencies regulating food have conflicting responsibilities.  For example the FDA regulates chicken broth while the USDA regulates beef broth; but when it comes to dehydrated soup, the FDA regulates beef and the USDA regulates chicken.   


 BSE may arise spontaneously or from scrapie, so it is complacent to consider it a foreign problem.  The government needs the power to force recalls.  Changes are needed because the USDA has the schizophrenic responsibility of keeping our food safe while also promoting sales.  Meat should be traceable and putting more information on food labels would give us more control over what we eat.  Existing rules should be enforced and the risk of BSE in pigs, chickens, and other livestock should be studied and eliminated if it exists.  Encouraging open land ranching where it is appropriate and more humane treatment of livestock would improve mad cow and other problems.  Using downer cows is not only risky, but it is also often cruel to the animals (  Unlike the USA, Japan began testing all cattle after finding a BSE infected animal in September 2001 and doing that would ensure safety and tell us if BSE does exist here and at what frequency.  Japan’s testing program identified two very young cows having BSE but not exhibiting symptoms.     


The Politcs of Mad Cow Regualtion
Perhaps the reason that the officials charged with safeguarding the food supply are not doing more for public health is because they are often former industry officials or associates.  President Bush appointed many former livestock industry officials into the USDA, at least 24 during his first term, where they continue to argue against regulation.  Former Agriculture Secretary Ann M Veneman was on the board of a biotechnology company.  Her Chief of Staff Dale Moore was director of legislative affairs for the National Cattleman’s Beef Association.  Her spokeswoman, Alisa Harrison, was director of public relations for the National Cattleman’s Beef Association and fought Oprah Winfrey’s criticism of meat safety and industry regulation.  Deputy Undersecretary Charles Lambert was formerly chief economist for the Association.  Records show that he had at least 12 meetings with members or former members of the Association and its constituents.  He says that on policy matters he was only a facilitator and that another USDA employee was always present (CD, May 23, 2004).  Deputy Secretary James R. Moseley was co-owner of a large hog farm and the official in charge of preventing agricultural monopoly was formerly on the National Pork Producers Council, a big business group.  Deputy Undersecretary Floyd Gaibler was Executive Director of the pro-dairy industry National Cheese Institute.  Assistant Secretary for Congressional Affairs Mary Waters was a director and legislative counsel for agribusiness giant ConAgra Foods.  Secretary Veneman appointed William Hueston, an industry witness in the “food disparagement” lawsuit against Oprah Winfrey to a committee on mad cow.  Other officials are also connected to agribusiness or go on to get jobs there, potentially compromising their independence. Under their watch the USDA has opposed labeling meat by country of origin and prevented meat packers from privately testing for BSE.  Bush wants to appoint Nebraska governor Mike Johanns to replace Veneman.  Like Veneman, Johanns is for so-called “free trade” and subsidies to agribusiness.  In Nebraska Johanns fought a 23-year-old rule preventing corporate agribusiness in the state. 


The major parties receive generous funding from meat industry interests.  The beef industry gave $41 million dollars in donations in the 1990’s.  During this time more than third of the donations went to members of the Senate and House agriculture committees and six current or past chairmen or top minority members of these bodies.   Most of the contributions have gone to Republicans, but this is a bipartisan problem.  In the 90’s there were also 124 congressional lobbyists for the beef industry, 28 of whom had been legislators or aides to legislators.  

<>   Several times Congress attempted to improve food safety but each time efforts were defeated by the National Milk Producers Federation and other interests.
In a 2003 spending bill the Senate approved a requirement preventing consumption of downer cattle but Republicans prevented discussion of it in a conference
  committee, killing the measure. The House version would have pushed country-of-origin labeling to 2005 while the Senate version called for labeling by September
  30, 2004.  In 2002 both houses approved a similar regulation but it was removed when the House and Senate versions were combined.  Agribusiness interests
  have also won in the courts, for example when in 1993 the American Meat Institute sued the USDA over mandating that meat should be labeled with handling
   and cooking instructions, claiming that this would scare consumers.           


 In other countries business interests have similarly opposed consumer protections, placing the public at risk.  Alberta had a good testing system when a BSE cow was found in 1993 and then the system’s funding was cut.  The British government suppressed and denied the dangers of BSE for years, worsening the eventual crisis.  Animal feeds banned from the UK in 1988 were sold to other countries.  


 Besides transmissible mink encephalopathies, the USA also has the TSE chronic wasting disease (CWD).  It exists in wild elk and deer from the northern Rockies to Wisconsin, in an isolated area in New Mexico and in Canada since at least the 60’s, as well as in captive elk in the Republic of Korea.  Cattle can get CWD by injection.   It is theoretically possible for humans to be infected by CWD but there have been no proven cases.  Some people possibly got sick from potentially infected meat but known prion diseases explained their illnesses.   


VCJD is a minor disease compared to more common diseases like HIV but the food we eat should be as safe as possible.  The creation of the mad cow problem shows that while regulators and business can fix their mistakes, the system tends to imperil the consumer since it values profit only while consumers lack information, choices, and consistent political power.  The factors that make beef unsafe are likely related to the problems that give 38.6 million Americans food-borne illnesses and kill 2700 annually.  The beef industry has opposed any government testing for food-borne diseases.  Meat also contributes to 1.5 million heart disease, cancer, and stroke deaths per year in the USA and raising cattle requires more resources and produces more pollution than growing plants.  Sixteen pounds of grain is required to raise one pound of beef.  Of the total resources used in the USA, more than a third is used for livestock.  2500 to 5000 gallons of water is required to raise one pound of meat while 25 gallons will yield a pound of wheat or potatoes.  


These are poorly understood diseases and ought to be treated carefully.  Safety should come first, but with our current system, measures come after it is too late or after business demands are met – the consumer comes last.