Mad Cow Disease in the United States

Late in the day on December 23, 2003 the U.S. government announced that a dairy cow in Washington state was infected with mad cow disease, also called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). Government officials announced that they have a plan, but it seems to be a public relations plan, not a plan to protect the public health. Newspapers report that meat from the cow, who was killed December 9, traveled through three processing plants before the problem was discovered 13 days later.

What Is Mad Cow Disease?

Spongy brains, whether in humans, cows, or other animals, are caused by malformed proteins called prions. Researchers have traced recent outbreaks of the bovine version of the disease to farmers’ cost-cutting practice of mixing bits of dead sheep’s neural tissue into the feed of cows, who are naturally herbivorous. If cows eat the brains of other cows who already have BSE or of sheep suffering from a sheep disease called scrapie, the animals can develop mad cow disease. When people eat infected animals, thus far presumed to be cows, they could develop the human version of the disease, new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (nvCJD). Millions of cattle suspected of being infected with BSE in England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Belgium, Italy, and other countries have been incinerated, and various safeguards (few of which have been adopted in the U.S.) have been instituted.
Mad Cow
No matter what species it strikes, spongiform encephalopathy is always fatal. There is no treatment. The disease eats holes in the brain. In humans, it initially causes memory loss and erratic behavior, and over a period of months, its victims gradually lose all ability to care for themselves or communicate, and eventually, they die. So far, more than 120 people in Europe have died from nvCJD.

Doesn’t the government protect the meat supply?

Because the infected cow was raised for dairy production, she had lived long enough to show symptoms of the disease. Most cows are killed before they turn 2 years old, chickens at 6 to 7 weeks, and pigs and turkeys before they’re 6 months old, long before they could become symptomatic; no one would know whether they were infected with spongy brain disease, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is doing nothing at all to try to find out. In fact, the USDA admits that it only tested about 20,000 cows (and no other animals) for BSE last year—a statistically insignificant percentage of the approximately 40 million cows and 10 billion other animals slaughtered annually.

The dangerous practice of feeding sheep and even cows to other cows was not banned in the U.S. and Canada until 1997, and the U.S. government said that as recently as 2001, there was widespread violation of the feeding regulation. It is still legal to feed cow’s blood to cows, to feed sheep and cows to pigs and chickens, and to feed pigs and chickens to one another and to cows, even though these practices have been banned in Europe. In fact, European countries have instituted an array of safety precautions, which have not yet been adopted in the U.S., to try to protect their populations from spongy brain diseases.

Other forms of spongy brain diseases have been found in North America. In May, an 8-year-old cow on a dairy farm in Alberta, Canada, was found to have BSE. Two years ago, 200 sheep raised for dairy on a Vermont farm were killed on suspicion that they were infected with their species’ equivalent of mad cow disease. Chronic wasting disease, a similar condition, is widespread in deer and elk in Western Canada and the U.S. and is suspected of infecting hunters who may have eaten meat from sick animals.

Can You Protect Yourself?

Yes! The best way to protect yourself and your family is to stop eating animal products and choose a companionate vegan diet. A vegan diet not only protects you from mad cow disease, but is the most effective way to prevent foodborne illness, heart disease, strokes, and many other ailments.

If you eat meat, you already have to worry about salmonella, E. coli, campylobacter, heart disease, strokes, high blood pressure, and cancer, as well as your weight. Now, add mad cow, chicken, fish, pig, and turkey disease to the list— if there's a brain, it could have a spongy brain (spongiform encephalopathy); we've already identified mad cow disease variants in humans, sheep, mink, cows, elk, deer, and cats.

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Mad Cow Disease in the United States