By Kathy Guillermo
The recent spate of reports on mad cow disease in Europe would give pause to
even the most ardent burger lover. This dread disease, correctly called
bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), has been found in cattle herds in
Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Switzerland, France, Germany and Italy,
leaving panic, dangerous carcasses and economic destruction in its wake.
Eighty people in England have died of the human form of the disease, new
variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (nvCJD), and two in France have been
No one knows if mad cow disease has come here. But one thing is certain.
Our government is not doing enough to prevent it.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reassures us that it tested the brains of
2,000 cattle for BSE last year. But more than 36 million cattle were
slaughtered. This means that the brain tissue of less than one percent of
cattle was examined in a laboratory-the only reliable method of testing for
BSE. It’s worth noting that sick cows were only discovered in Germany and
Italy when the testing programs were stepped up in response to public demand.
In another move meant to stop BSE from reaching our shores, the U.S. stopped
the importation of cud-chewing animals from mad cow infected countries in
1989. But cattle embryos were imported until just a few months ago, when it
was discovered that mother cows can pass BSE to their offspring. Did BSE
enter the country with an embryo, now a full-grown cow? As it takes several
years for symptoms to develop and cattle may be slaughtered before their
second birthdays, neither the USDA nor anyone else knows.
Even the potentially deadly practice of feeding ruminants to other animals
has not been effectively halted. The Food and Drug Administration waited
until 1997 to prohibit the feeding of animal proteins to cattle. Just weeks
ago, the FDA announced that there is widespread failure among feed companies
to comply with the regulations.
Vaccinations could also be dangerous, as materials from cows are often used
as a medium to “grow” bacteria and process vaccines. In December the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that vaccinations manufactured
in BSE-infected countries be replaced. The agency’s fear is that the
vaccines could transmit nvCJD to people. Has it already happened? No one
We do know that spongiform encephalopathies similar to mad cow disease do
afflict other species in this country. Thousands of deer and elk in
Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Montana, Oklahoma and other western states suffer
from Chronic Wasting Disease, a brain disease similar to BSE. Some speculate
that the disease was introduced to the herds on game farms when they were fed
infected tissue from cattle or sheep, and worry that humans who hunt and eat
venison will develop nvCJD.
That fear may be valid. Last April, deer hunter and Oklahoma native Jay
Whitlock died of CJD. His illness has not been officially diagnosed as the
new variant strain of the disease, but most victims of the randomly striking
classic CJD are elderly because classic CJD incubates for 30 to 40 years
before it kills. Whitlock was only 28-years-old.
Like those who have succumbed to nvCJD in Britain, Whitlock was young and had
consumed the flesh of an animal known to be susceptible to spongiform
encephalopathy. He was the second young American deer hunter to die of CJD
Inexplicably, our government does not officially require cases of CJD to be
reported to the Centers for Disease Control.
There is no excuse for our government’s anemic approach to this serious
concern. Officials must be rigorous in their testing and enforcement of
regulations and completely honest with the public about the potential danger.
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