The Mad Cows Finally Come Home
December 23, 2003, the first official U.S. case of Bovine Spongiform
Encephalopathy (BSE)—better known as mad cow disease—was
reported by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) at the Sunny Dene
Ranch near Mabton, Washington. While Wall Street investors scrambled
to monitor their McDonald’s stocks, White House spokesperson
Scott McClellan hastened to assure everyone that President Bush
was still enjoying beef. USDA secretary Ann Veneman also publicly
pledged to serve beef to her family as part of their yuletide feast.
The world’s response to the arrival of mad cow in the U.S.
was basically a replay of what happened earlier in Canada when BSE
was reported there in May. A total of 43 countries have now imposed
bans on U.S. beef imports, including Japan, which purchased $854
million worth in 2002. Of the top four beef buyers (Japan, Mexico,
South Korea, and Canada account for 92 percent of U.S. exports)
only Canada does not have a full ban (Canada will accept boneless
beef from U.S. cattle under 30 months old). The final economic impact
on the $40 billion U.S. beef industry won’t be known for a
while. Wisconsin alone exported live animals and meat worth $194
million last year, much of it to Japan and South Korea. Meanwhile,
those U.S. farmers who had already switched to low-input, organic,
grass-fed systems reported unprecedented demand for their BSE-free
meat. Similar booms in natural grass-fed beef prices are being reported
in Brazil and Australia.
cow is but one member of an extended disease family known as Transmissible
Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSEs). These TSEs are caused by eating
bits of renegade protein known as prions. Since these abnormal prions
cannot be digested, they accumulate in toxic clumps eventually producing
holes in brain tissue. In deer and elk, this lethal neurological
condition is known as Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), in sheep it
is called Scrappie, while in humans it is known as Kuru (endemic
among certain human societies that practice ritualistic cannibalism),
though there is growing medical evidence that pathogenic prions
also trigger variant Creuzveldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), as well as
some forms of Alzheimers. Being smaller and more resilient than
viruses or bacteria, prions are not destroyed by freezing, cooking,
sterilization, or irradiation. Worse yet, pathogenic prions can
jump the species barrier.
Sinclair was one of the first to describe “downer” dairy
cows—too sick to walk—being dragged to slaughter in his
1906 novel about the Chicago stockyards,
Many would argue that the situation in the factory farm/slaughterhouse
meat industry complex is worse today than when Sinclair lived. Reading
books such as Gail Eisnitz’s
Fast Food Nation
, it is tempting to look
at the calendar to remind oneself of the century. Today, over 200,000
known “downers” are sent to U.S. meatpackers each year
(though many others go undetected) and they remain primary mad cow
suspects. Some of the first scientific evidence of the deadly presence
of TSEs in the U.S. came from mink studies by Professor Richard
Marsh of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Veterinarian Department
in the 1980s. His finding that deadly factory mink farm epidemics
were likely caused by high protein feed derived from “downer”
dairy cows was downplayed by academic superiors, government officials,
and industry spokespeople. Marsh was hounded and eventually ostracized
for daring to expose the dirty laundry of the meat industry. Like
Rachel Carson, his groundbreaking investigation is only now being
vindicated after his death.
the Atlantic the existence of mad cow was confirmed in the UK in
1985, and the outbreak soon spread across the rest of Europe, ultimately
leading to the slaughter of 3.7 million animals. In one of the more
bizarre public relations attempts to boost consumer morale, British
agriculture secretary, John Gummer, fed a hamburger to his four-year-old
daughter before television cameras in 1990. Three months later British
health minister, Stephen Dorrell, was before Parliament telling
the world that mad cow could also sicken humans. Six years later,
the first victims emerged. Over 140 people have now died in Europe—mostly
in Britain—from variant CJD and, given the long incubation
period, the final human toll will be much higher. This horrific
experience led to the adoption of much tougher food safety standards
worldwide. Europe adopted a full ban on animal byproducts in livestock
feed and now requires BSE testing of all animals over 30 months
old—one out of every four animals. Belgium alone tests 20 times
as many animals each year for mad cow as the U.S.—Japan tests
every animal killed, regardless of age.
some farm/food activists in the U.S. were diligently following the
mad cow nightmare in Britain with alarm, millions of TV viewers
became unwittingly exposed to the specter thanks to Oprah. On April
16, 1996 Oprah’s guest was Howard Lyman, a Montana rancher
turned vegan activist, and mad cow was one of the topics. Lyman
revealed that U.S. cows were literally eating themselves (with human
help) and this revelation led Oprah to exclaim that it had “just
stopped me cold from eating another hamburger.” Within hours
of the show’s airing, cattle futures dropped by 20 percent
on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) and the Texas Cattleman’s
Association pulled $600,000 in advertising from Oprah’s network,
while filing suit under a new corporate-friendly Texas “food
disparagement” law. Their attempt to stifle public criticism
proved unsuccessful, and Oprah won her free speech case after spending
millions on defense attorneys.
1997, John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton of Madison, Wisconsin-based
PR Watch released
another warning that was quickly pooh-poohed as hysterical and alarmist
by public officials and industry spin doctors alike. (Their book
is available online at www.prwatch.org/books/madcow.) Howard Lyman
followed in 1998 with his own scathing expose of the meat industry,
Lyman minces no words, letting
consumers know that everything from roadkill animals to euthanized
pets go to rendering plants and ultimately into livestock rations
and onto butcher blocks. Those with a big stake in the status quo
howled for damage control. With the results of a three-year, taxpayer-subsidized,
computer-driven study in hand, the deputy director of the Harvard
Center for Risk Analysis, George Gray, soothingly reported: “We
are firmly confident that BSE will not become an animal or public
health problem in America. The United States is very resistant to
BSE. As far as we know, it’s not here now, but if it does get
in, it can’t become established. Basically with the measures
that are already in place, even with imperfect compliance, the disease
in the cattle herd dies out, and the potential for people to be
exposed to infected cattle parts is tiny” (
12/20/2001). Rural realities have since proven the statistical models
White House knew as early as 1991 that a moratorium on feeding livestock
back to livestock was necessary in the U.S. to avoid its own mad
cow outbreak. A federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service
(APHIS) report from that year, obtained by PR Watch through the
Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) clearly states: “The advantage
of this option is that it minimizes the risk of BSE. The disadvantage
is that the cost to the livestock and rendering industries would
be substantial.” However, it was not until 1997 that the FDA
issued a ruling that all livestock feed containing meat and bone
meal from ruminants must be labeled “do not feed to ruminants.”
Contrary to the rhetoric of government officials and corporate apologists,
there is no “firewall.” The White House never banned the
practice of livestock cannibalism, nor has the government ever offered
proof of its claim that there is 99 percent industry compliance
with the labeling rule. In fact, an FDA inspection of rendering
plants and feed mills in 2000 revealed that up to half lacked the
proper warning labels and up to a quarter had no way to even detect
or prevent mix-ups in their use of risky animal byproducts (
January 2002, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) also issued
a report that found the FDA “has not acted promptly to compel
firms to keep prohibited proteins out of cattle feed and to label
animal feed that cannot be fed to cattle.” According to the
GAO, noncompliant firms had not been re-inspected in two years,
firms with multiple infractions evaded any penalty, and the FDA’s
inspection data were “severely flawed.” As recently as
July 2003, the FDA was still issuing consent decrees against feed
mills for non-compliance. The GAO report concluded, the “FDA
does not know the full extent of industry compliance.” A Friends
of the Earth (FOE) review of FDA records found over a dozen feed
mills in Washington State had violated federal labeling requirements
between 1998 and 2002 (
Seattle Post Intelligencer
12/27/03). In Wisconsin alone there are over 500 feed mills supposedly
subject to some form of government regulation.
consumer watchdog Public Citizen has issued countless warnings about
lethargic food safety enforcement over the last few years. Whereas
close to 35 million head of cattle are slaughtered annually in the
U.S., only 57,000 animals have been tested for BSE since 1990. Public
Citizen has shown that there is little testing consistency across
states, virtually no public transparency of the process, and too
much industry discretion about which animals are tested (www.citizen.org/documents/madcowreport.pdf).
For example, in Wisconsin last year 1.5 million cattle were slaughtered,
yet only 2,900 were checked for BSE. Ongoing White House efforts
to “privatize” regulatory functions, as well as federal
and state budget cutting exercises have meant dwindling food safety
inspections, more cursory and flimsy testing, and a general eroding
of public oversight of the meat industry. Big Beef has been larding
politicians with campaign contributions over the years—$22
million since 1990, mostly to Republicans—towards this end.
thing that has been consistent over time is the concerted effort
by the agribusiness establishment and government bureaucracy to
squash concern about BSE in the U.S. The revolving door between
Big Beef and the White House is notorious. Lisa Harrison, former
public relations director for the National Cattlemen’s Beef
Association—who sent out press releases with titles like “Mad
Cow Disease Not a Problem in the U.S.” following the Oprah
show—is now the USDA’s BSE spokesperson. Veneman’s
current chief of staff, Dale Moore, is a former lobbyist for the
meat industry. Recently appointed to the federal mad cow committee
is William Heuston, another meat industry shill who was an expert
witness against Oprah Winfrey and Howard Lyman in their libel suit.
Such paralyzing and corrupting conflicts of interest in the wake
of the mad cow epidemic forced the UK to create a separate Food
Safety Agency independent from the Ministry of Agriculture. The
USDA, though, is treating mad cow as more of a public relations
problem for meatpackers than as a real safety concern for consumers.
Helping with this effort are right-wing “junk science”
pundits, such as Steve Milloy of the Cato Institute, now hitting
the mass media with stories disputing that prions even cause disease.
fact that mad cow found its way to the U.S. was almost an inevitable
consequence of corporate globalization and industrial agribusiness.
The cow that tested positive for BSE in Washington State was most
likely imported from Canada with 80 others in 2001. So far only
a handful of those other animals have been located and their adopted
herds quarantined. Government regulation of cross border livestock
shipment is minimal at best, and transshipment has skyrocketed with
the expansion of global free trade regimes like the North American
Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In 2003 Mexico shipped over 1 million
cows to the U.S., while Canada exported 1.7 million cows. The lack
of government oversight goes even further as revealed by a story
Yakima Herald Tribune.
Because there is no mandated
domestic tracking system, an entire herd of 449 bull calves in Washington
state had to be killed because USDA officials had no way to identify
the single offspring from the BSE infected cow among them.
farming only increases the likelihood for BSE contamination. The
infected cow was part of a mega-dairy operation involving 2,600
milking cows and 1,300 dry and replacement cows in 2 locations—Mabton
and Grandview. Standard procedure on such factory farms entails
recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) injections, as well as
feeding of a total mixed ration (TMR) containing “high protein”
animal byproducts. These cows are prone to elevated levels of mastitis
(udder infection) and other health problems, prompting farmers to
use more (often illegal) antibiotics and other dubious supplements.
Cramped cows on drugs also “burn out” quickly—lasting
only three to four years, half the productive lifespan of a dairy
cow out on pasture—and this high attrition rate means more
“downer” cows in the food stream. Treating animals like
machines also means that factory farms cannot sustain themselves—cows
are culled too fast to produce enough young to even replace themselves—so
they must rely on constant infusions of fresh heifers from either
better managed (but still going bankrupt) family farm dairy herds
or imported livestock herds.
up the food chain, the chance to spread BSE continues. Disassembly
line speeds in U.S. slaughterhouses run at rates three times that
legally allowed in Europe, triggering more worker injuries and aggravating
meat contamination. Cost-saving “innovations” like air
compressed stunning, bolt guns, carcass splitting, mechanical deboning,
and advanced meat recovery (AMR) translate into more “non-meat”
waste in the food supply. Finding a chunk of spinal column still
attached to a T-bone steak at the store is no longer that uncommon.
Even if an animal were to test positive for a health problem in
the U.S., its meat has long since been processed and dispersed throughout
the nation’s food supply—executives and shareholders simply
can’t stomach the prospect of profit being held up due to frivolous
health regulations. Thanks to increasing corporate consolidation
of the meat industry, a single hamburger patty can contain up to
100 different animals, and one sick animal can contaminate up to
32,000 pounds of ground beef. As happened in this case, meat from
the BSE infected downer cow slaughtered on December 9
Lake, Washington quickly found its way to eight states (Washington,
Nevada, Alaska, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, California, Hawaii), as
well as the U.S. territory of Guam. According to the USDA, its subsequent
recall of 10,410 pounds of hamburger and meat cuts was taken out
of “an abundance of caution,” not because of any imminent
threat of BSE contamination. Still in a state of denial, the agency
has not provided any BSE/CJD health advisory to those who may have
consumed the suspect meat either.
have shown that blood can also harbor pathogenic prions. In fact,
U.S. residents who spent extensive time in Europe during the mad
cow epidemic are not allowed to donate blood here and surgeons in
the UK still rely on imported blood for operations there precisely
because of this risk. Yet, under the current USDA regulations there
is no labeling or restriction placed on feeding cattle blood back
to calves in the form of milk replacer, calf starter, and other
supplements. In Wisconsin numerous companies promote these milk
replacers with “spray dried animal blood cells” to dairy
farmers. Bovine serum is also used by corporations like Monsanto
to “feed” the genetically engineered e. coli bacteria
which produce its brand name rBGH—Posilac—yet any potential
connection between this and BSE has not been addressed by the USDA.
legal loophole for possible spread of mad cow involves gelatin,
tallow, and “plate waste”—i.e., cooked meat that
has been offered to humans and then salvaged by the meat industry
for feeding back to livestock. Worse yet, USDA rules still permit
the use of ruminant byproducts to feed non-ruminants—such as
swine, horses, pets, and poultry—which are then in turn fed
back to cattle or people. This vicious cycle of livestock cannibalism
only magnifies the spread of BSE within the animal and human food
immediate USDA response to mad cow in the U.S. was to ban use of
downer cows for any human meat use, to hold all products from BSE
tested animals until the results are actually in, expand overall
BSE testing, ban use of Advanced Meat Recovery (AMR) technology
on animals over 30 months old and phase out air injection stunning,
establish a national livestock tracking system, and require tougher
labeling of animal food products that contain more than just meat
(i.e., spinal cord, brain, nerve tissue, intestine). For farm/food
critics, these are long overdue steps that don’t go far enough.
The USDA plan does not keep downer cows out of rendering plants
to become “fresh” livestock feed, does nothing about ending
the practice of livestock cannibalism, does not insure that livestock
are free of BSE, or that human food is safe from non-meat materials
that might contain pathogenic prions.
Stopping Mad Cow
Immediate Congressional Investigation of the Meat Industry.
There should be national public hearings on the mad cow issue
and more general food safety concerns with the meat industry.
Furthermore, Congress should call on the GAO for a comprehensive
review of USDA and FDA meat industry oversight and enforcement
activity, as well as consideration of alternatives—such as
a more transparent accountable federal agency exclusively responsible
for food safety. The contributing role of the land grant colleges
also needs to be addressed since for decades public researchers
and extension agents have been developing and promoting questionable
technologies such as rBGH, AMR, and TMR, which help spread BSE.
Implement Country of Origin Labeling (COOL).
farmers have the right to know exactly where their food and feed
come from—and this includes meat products, dietary supplements,
milk replacers, and the like. Many farmer and consumer groups
fought hard to include COOL in the last Farm Bill, but it has
now been stalled due to agribusiness lobbying with the support
of the Bush administration. COOL should be passed by Congress
and enacted immediately.
Ban the Feeding
of Animal Byproducts to Livestock.
Livestock cannibalism is
not natural and is dangerous. Herbivores should not be consuming
ground-up carcasses of other animals as part of a “high protein”
total mixed ration (TMR), or a separate nutritional supplement,
no matter what extension agents or agribusiness salesmen say.
The same goes for poultry manure, cooked human “plate waste,”
gelatin, tallow, blood/bone meal, or other animal-derived byproducts
used as livestock “feed,” which could serve as sources
of BSE infection and contamination.
Ban the Use
of Bovine Blood in Milk Replacer and Other Calf Supplements.
citizens who have been to Europe and possibly exposed to BSE are
prohibited from donating blood, yet U.S. agribusiness corporations
are allowed to extract blood from slaughtered livestock and then
sell such to farmers as a “high protein” ingredient
in milk replacer, calf starter, and other growth supplements.
The World Health Organization has warned against this vampiric
practice for over a decade and it should be prohibited. The role
of livestock blood in the manufacture of other livestock products—such
as rBGH—also needs to be federally investigated for its potential
BSE contamination role.
Ban the Use
of “Downer” Cows for Human Food.
Dairy cows that
can’t even walk into a slaughterhouse have obvious health
problems, such as BSE, and are not fit for human consumption.
Meat from downer cows has supposedly been banned from use in the
USDA School Lunch Program for years, yet it has been deemed by
the FDA as safe to eat by adults and children outside of school.
No downer cow meat or other byproducts should be allowed in the
human food supply. The fact that irradiation does not destroy
prions, should also make the USDA think twice about its decision
to allow irradiation as an effective and safe form of “pasteurization.”
Meat Recovery (AMR) and Other Risky Slaughter Practices.
deboning and advanced meat recovery (AMR) are just money grubbing
efforts to extract every last ounce of tissue from a carcass in
order to make “more” product—hamburger, pepperoni,
hotdogs, bologna, tacos, sausage. The use of air injection stunners
and bolt guns to kill livestock should also be banned since this
guarantees the splatter of brain tissue over the rest of the animal
carcass. Such sloppy practices almost guarantee BSE contamination.
People should not be misled into eating brain, cartilage, gristle,
tendons, nerves, and other basically indigestible material they
think is “meat” and thereby exposing themselves to pathogenic
prions. AMR and these other risky meat industry practices belong
in the technological trashbin.
Risk Animal Byproducts in Dietary Supplements and Cosmetics.
tissues that could contain pathogenic prions such as brain, spinal
cord, and dorsal root ganglia are also used as ingredients in
many human dietary supplements. The federal government should
require reporting from manufacturers, mandate risk warnings for
consumers and comprehensive product registration, as well as explicit
identification of the livestock ingredients and country of origin
labeling (COOL). The same federal scrutiny is deserved for cosmetics
that contain beef tallow.
Restrict and Monitor the Importation of Live Animals.
reckless transshipment of disease-carrying species across borders
has been one of the worst consequences of free trade—and
the spread of BSE across North America is but the latest example.
Just because factory farms are so unsustainable that they burnout
their cows prematurely and can’t produce enough calves to
maintain their herd levels does not mean they should be allowed
to import animals from Canada or Argentina at will. The USDA must
conduct strict border checks for diseases like BSE and implement
a national livestock tracking system, like the one already in
place in Brazil (now the largest beef exporter in the world).
testing to All Slaughtered Livestock
. Comprehensivs BSE testing
of all livestock is already mandated in Japan, and can be done
in but a few hours with new BSE tests that the U.S. has not yet
adopted. In fact, one of these quick BSE tests, widely used in
Europe, was developed by 1997 Nobel Prize winning scientist and
prion expert, Prof. Stanley Prusiner at the University of California,
San Francisco. The U.S. needs to upgrade its scientific procedures,
learn from other countries, and get more serious about routine
livestock disease testing. Ignorance is not bliss.
TSE Research and Begin CJD Monitoring in Humans.
Center for Disease Control (CDC) should begin proactive education
of medical professionals about TSEs and initiate nationwide monitoring
of CJD. Casual surveys of death certificates are not adequate.
The National Prion Disease Pathology Surveillance Center at Case
Western Reserve University, created by the CDC in 1997, needs
more funding and publicity of its vital work. While the National
Institute of Health has allocated $27 million towards TSE related
research, this work needs to get beyond theoretical issues to
work on preventative solutions.
E. Peck is the executive director of Family Farm Defenders. For
more information, contact: Family Farm Defenders, PO Box 1772, Madison,
WI 53701; www. familyfarmdefenders.org.