MAD COW, U.S.A: COULD THE NIGHTMARE HAPPEN HERE?


[originally published Nov. 1998]



FIRST, WHAT EXACTLY IS THE NIGHTMARE IN YOUR SUBTITLE?


 


Sheldon Rampton (SR): It’s a nightmare on two levels. First, it’s a nightmare in terms of human and animal health; animals in large numbers have died in Europe, particularly England, and now humans are dying. But secondly it’s an economic nightmare for farmers and, ultimately, for everyone. The British beef market collapsed like a house of cards once the news came out that this disease was spreading from cows to humans. Both of those are real nightmares that we should be concerned about.


 


Let’s talk about how the two of you got onto this story in the first place, which I think is interesting in and of itself. You’ve said that the reporting on this subject was absolutely abysmal when you began to investigate it yourselves.


 


John Stauber (JS): Right, and now it’s gone from abysmal to just really bad [laughter]. Our book has already had a major impact on the public debate surrounding this issue. I got involved with this issue through my work fighting alongside farmers and consumers who were opposed to Monsanto’s genetically-engineered cow hormone (rBGH), which is injected into cows to force them to produce more milk. The interesting thing is that in order to get more milk out of these cows you have to give them fat and protein supplements, and it was discovered in the early ’90s that the cheapest source of fat and protein supplements for dairy cows in Wisconsin was dairy cows. In other words, the meat unfit for human consumption—the stuff that doesn’t make it onto the dinner plate—being rendered and fed back to dairy cows.


 


This practice had been banned in Britain because it was proven that this is how Mad Cow Disease (MCD) was spread. And there was a great deal of concern, even half a decade ago, that this disease could move from the “mad cows” of Britain into people, which it now has. So it was looking into a modern technological wonder, the genetically-engineered Bovine Growth Hormone, which first drew my attention to the risks of this disease in the U.S.


 


So, in terms of the connection between cow consumption patterns and their effect on the human population, walk us through what precisely happened in England. How widespread a phenomenon are we talking about?


 


SR: One of the interesting things about this disease is that it’s caused by a very unique disease agent. They’ve never been able to characterize it entirely, but the working theory right now is that it’s caused by an infectious protein. This protein can come into existence through something like mutation, so there’s no population in the world that is immune from the possibility of developing the disease at low levels. Mutations just “happen.” Kind of like “shit happens.” What we’ve got to be concerned about is what causes it to spread. In England, the practice of what amounts to animal cannibalism created a closed loop that enabled the disease to amplify and multiply There are now [as of 1998-ed.]160,000 British cows that have been identified and diagnosed post-mortem as having had the disease, and their epidemiological analyses suggest that something like another 1.5 million cows have gone on to be consumed by humans, because they were never diagnosed.


 


So rather than a cow infected with this disease simply dying off, and the disease dying off with that cow, the dead bodies of diseased cows are being consumed by other cows, and then consumed again by humans.


 


SR: Right. And that could create a closed amplification loop for all kinds of diseases, ranging from anthrax to…you name it. Most diseases, however, get stopped at the border, so to speak, when they go into the rendering plants, because they dump in chemicals and heat it all up, which disinfects the stuff. But one of the unique characteristics, again, of this particular disease agent is that it’s very resistant to sterilization procedures, and so it escapes the preventative protective measures that they think they’ve put in place.


 


You’ve emphasized what you call the “completely unique nature” of this disease. Besides its resistance to sterilization processes, what else makes it unique?


 


JS: One thing that’s important to understand about the disease agent is that it’s best generically referred to as a TSE, or a Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy. The meaning of “Transmissible” is obvious. “Spongiform” refers to the sponge-like holes that are eaten into the brain as dementia develops. “Encephalopathy” simply refers to the disease of the brain. A TSE is essentially a transmissible Alzheimer’s-like disease. Sheldon mentioned that the disease agent, an infectious protein which has been called a “prion” by Nobel Prize winner Stanley Prusiner, is virtually indestructible by heat. It’s also impervious to irradiation. And most chemicals don’t touch it. So when you take the dead of a species and feed it back to itself, you amplify this disease within that species.


 


The first time anyone ever saw this in cows was in England in 1985, and now it’s already jumped from those mad cows into a variety of species, including human beings. So far, there are 22 confirmed deaths in Britain and continental Europe from this disease. And people might say, “Oh well, that’s a tiny number. Nine thousand people a year die from food poisoning in the United States alone, so what’s 22 deaths?” The problem is that because in humans this disease is thought to have an incubation period of decades, we won’t know for probably another half decade how that death toll is going to grow. And it’s been growing. So far it’s been doubling each year, and there are some scientists who are afraid that we could be looking at thousands, tens of thousands, or potentially even hundreds of thousands of deaths. These are people who already ate meat from infected mad cows, but because of the long and invisible incubation period, won’t die for ten or twenty years, when suddenly this horrible, fatal dementia strikes.


 


We had a very difficult time in the 1980s getting a handle on AIDS, which shares some of these characteristics. AIDS has an incubation period that’s measured in years. This disease is much mere invisible than AIDS, and much more insidious. It’s spread through contaminated meat, and it has an incubation period we measure in decades. So it’s going to take a really different type of thinking and effort to get a handle on this disease. The good news is that it’s rather easy to prevent—the first step is stopping the practice of feeding a species its own dead. The bad news is that we’re continuing to do this in the United States, more so than in any other country. Even though the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has finally come up with some restrictions, we still feed cow’s blood back to calves, the fat from cows to calves, pigs to pigs, chickens to chickens, and then those animals back to cows. So there are all sorts of avenues through which this disease could amplify in livestock and potentially spread into people in the U.S.


 


In Britain, although industry resisted tooth and nail the attempts of activists first to call this to the attention of the public and then to impose restrictions on these practices, eventually the British government did step in and ban this economy of cannibalism. How did that come about and why is it that nothing of the sort is going on in this country?


 


SR: If you look at the behavior of the British government, some people would say they actually responded pretty quickly. Once cows were identified with the disease, they acted pretty quickly to ban the practice of animal cannibalism. There are some other practices that they did not ban, such as the use of certain animal parts in food that have been consumed by humans that they should have. They’re now regretting that quite a bit. But the fact is that at the time that they banned the practice of feeding rendered cows back to cows, they had only identified about 200 cases of MCD in the entire country. And now some of the scientists who have come under criticism for not taking more drastic measures are saying, “Well, we had no idea this was going to get this far out of hand.” This is a disease where, because of the long incubation period, it’s very easy to remain in denial, or to remain completely oblivious to the fact that it exists.


 


The FDA, in its own assessment of what would happen in this country, said that by the time we find the first case in the US, we’ll already be expecting another 300,000 more. So they would have a disease roughly twice the size of the epidemic in all of England by the time they even found the first case here. So the English can legitimately claim that they acted pretty quickly in dealing with this. The problem is that with a disease this unique, you need a really severe precautionary principle, and you need to take preventative measures before you even see the first case.


 


JS: And that’s one thing that’s so disturbing about what the US. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the FDA have and have not done. We have documents that we obtained under the Freedom of Information Act which show that as early as 1990 and 1991, regulators with the USDA were saying, “Well, if we want to be safe here in the United States, we should stop this widespread practice of cow cannibalism, but that would be hard on the meat industry.” Very early on, the British, through good science, confirmed that the Mad Cow infection was spreading through cow cannibalism, and they began acting in 1988 to shut it down. But the U.S. failed to act at all, even though they knew they should have. Why? Because we have a real problem in this country with the USDA and the FDA being more concerned with protecting the meat industry they’re theoretically regulating than with protecting consumers and livestock.


 


So while the USDA and FDA are supposed to be protecting US consumers from the sorts of dangers we’ve been discussing, a central function of theirs is to promote sales for the meat and dairy industries. How does this double function play out?


 


SR: Well, I always say that when you create an institution which has a built in contradictory mission, what you’re designing is corruption, because you can’t serve two opposing masters well. And the result is that the USDA’s and FDA’s efforts to serve as regulators of food safety are compromised by their imperative to serve as marketing agents for the food industry. I think it’s pretty obvious, and it’s not something that you can blame on an individual out there who’s just not doing their job. They are doing their job, but their job is contradictory in nature.


 


JS: It’s structurally built in that this contradiction is going to unravel. For instance, in 1989 the USDA and the FDA put together a top scientific group to examine Mad Cow risks in the US. By 1990, this committee was completely dominated by the meat industry, the rendering industry, the sheep industry and the dairy industry. And there still has never been a single token representative for the consuming public put on that committee. It essentially met in secret. What’s also disturbing is that we’ve had good scientific evidence since 1985 that we probably have a strain of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (ESE), the U.S. version of Mad Cow Disease, in dairy cows.


 


This was based on excellent work by Dr. Richard Marsh at the University of Wisconsin. When the government put together this committee I referred to, he was one of the scientists named to it in 1989. And as soon as he understood the potential danger here, he warned of the need to stop the practice of feeding animals back to their same species. He was essentially ignored, ridiculed, even threatened at times. With the confirmation that people in Britain are dying from MCD, he’s been vindicated, but it’s especially upsetting that federal agencies have acted so irresponsibly with regard to their duty to protect human health and safety. They had Marsh’s research, and they had Marsh himself saying “We’ve got to stop this” And yet nothing was done.


 


You argue in the book that in the coming months we’re going to see a trade war between the U.S. pharmaceutical and meat industries and the European Union. Can you talk about that?


 


SR: Well, you’re seeing it start to unfold already. The European Union has so far refused to grant the United States BSE-free status. It has refused the US that status based on a number of issues, like the fact that we have scrapie in this country, which is a disease in sheep that’s in the same class as MCD. There are also two diseases in this country that are almost never seen anywhere else in the world. One is Transmissible Mink Encephalopathy. The other is a disease that has only been reported in Colorado and Wyoming, called Chronic Wasting Disease, which is found in free-ranging deer and elk.


 


So for those reasons, Europeans properly understand that they need to exercise a precautionary principle with regard to food safety. The United States is saying, well, we’ve never specifically seen Mad Cow Disease of the British variety in this country, and therefore we should be granted BSE-free status and be allowed to export to Europe pharmaceuticals and cosmetics that contain materials derived from the parts of cows that are deemed to have the highest risk of infection.


 


Which products are those?


 


JS: Well, let me step back a little bit to what Sheldon was saying. The most infectious parts of a cow, or a human, or a sheep that has a Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy are the brain, the nervous system, the endocrine system, the spinal cord and nerve tissue. That’s where the highest level of infectivity resides. That’s exactly the sort of waste material that’s deemed unfit for human consumption. And billions and billions of pounds of this waste are shipped off, along with the gristle, skeleton, and other parts, to rendering plants, which are big cooking and evaporating factories. This is where they feed the potentially infectious parts of dead animals back to their own species. Rendering results in an array of products that are really quite mind-boggling, and which we see every day. Gelatin and tallow for instance, are typically derived from rendered products.


 


Where are gelatin and tallow found?


 


SR: Gelatin ends up in all kinds of things. It’s used as a stiffener in a variety of food products. Gel-caps in your medicines contain gelatin, of course. Jell-O is gelatin. You find it in a lot of different things.


 


I noticed it the other day as one of the main ingredients in Frosted Mini-Wheats.


 


SR: You find it in an incredible number of things. Tallow is also used in food production, as well as in the manufacturing of cosmetics. That’s what gives skin creams their creamy feel.


 


JS: Now, gelatin and tallow, although they’re products of rendering, are thought to be rather low risk, because they’re not supposed to contain a lot of proteinaceous material. But in Britain and in continental Europe, there’s a real concern about any risk at all, and they have certain standards that their gelatin and tallow products have to meet as part of this precautionary principle Sheldon was talking about, and to head off the worst-case scenario of an invisible disease with an incubation period of decades.


 


So the problem here is that the United States doesn’t want to institute the strict feeding bans and controls that have now become commonplace in Europe and Britain, and rather than following the European lead, [the US government], the Trade Office, and the meat and rendering industries, along with the pharmaceutical industry, are threatening lawsuits and a trade war against the European Union.


 


One reason they’re getting away with this, of course, is that most people in the United States don’t understand the crux of this issue. Going back to the miserable media attention that’s been paid to this, one way the meat industry has made sure that this issue and other controversial food safety issues don’t get a lot of media attention is by working to pass legislation in 13 states that allows the meat industry to bring libel suits against journalists, activists, or any citizens who “disparage” perishable foods like fruits and vegetables and meat. These libel laws put the onus on journalists, on activists, and on citizens to prove that what they’re saying is truthful and scientifically sound. It’s simply a hook on which powerful industries can hang what are called “slapsuits“—strategic lawsuits against public participation which are designed to silence people like Oprah Winfrey and Howard Lyman and to send a message to the media not to cover these issues unless they want to get hit with a lawsuit


 


That’s what your first book together, Toxic Sludge Is Good for You!, was about: the corporate PR machine that functions like a swat team against critics. How are the two books related? How has the PR industry insinuated itself into this controversy?


 


SR: Well, I think you could probably regard Mad Cow USA as sort of a case study in the issues that we were talking about in Toxic Sludge Is Good For You! That’s what attracted us to it as a story to begin with. In this case, we had an international PR campaign in both Europe and in the United States to keep a lid on this issue. It fell apart very flamboyantly in Europe, but has been continuing in this country because here the spin is different. Up until last year, the spin they were trying to put on it in Europe was, “Okay, so cows are getting sick, but it’ll never transmit to humans.” That fell apart on them.


 


In this country, the spin they’re putting on it is, “Okay, so this is a disease you wouldn’t want to get, but we don’t have it in this country.” And every time this issue comes up in the media, you see that spin coming from the USDA and from the beef industry. That’s the message they’ve honed and refined and are driving home. The strategy that John was talking about—the food disparagement lawsuit—plays into that, because when someone like Howard Lyman gets out and makes a statement, he’s on the hook for anything he says, whereas industry can say pretty much anything they want—and they have—about the issue. And what it means is that unless you can absolutely prove every word you say when you criticize the food industry, you can be sued and dragged through years of lawsuits. So even if you win, your life is really messed up.


 


Are you guys worried about potential repercussions for publishing this book?


 


SR: Well, we certainly have anticipated the possibility that we could face a lawsuit. It hasn’t happened yet, but the book’s fairly new. So stay tuned, folks.


 


This book is obviously alarming. I’ve already heard people say things like “I’m never eating a burger again. I’m gonna be really careful about what I eat and what I consume.” Obviously you don’t want to discourage people from changing their diets. It’s only natural to react that way, right? At the same time, you make the point in the conclusion of the book that trying to navigate one’s way around this disease, this potential epidemic, by picking and choosing what one consumes is ultimately an ineffective approach. What would an effective approach be?


 


SR: I think that whether someone chooses to be a vegetarian or to eat meat is really a separate issue from what kind of policies we need to have to have safe food and safe lives. It’s not just eating meat, of course, because the infectivity of the agent that causes Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies has been found in blood, for example. And there have been cases where people who died of the human version of the disease, Kreutzfeld-Jakob Disease, were found to have donated blood that went into the blood supply. Presumably, this blood was then used in surgery. And I’ve had people ask me, “Would you get surgery if you knew that one of the donors providing the blood you were going to be transfused with had this disease?” The answer, of course, is that it would depend on what kind of surgery I needed, and how urgent it was.


 


But the answer is that the solution to human health problems should not be based on consumers having to make decisions based on what might have gone into their food. What we really deserve to have is a food supply that is adequately safeguarded through a precautionary principle that views the worst-case scenario for a disease like Mad Cow as the thing it has to guard against. What we have instead is much less protective of us; it’s a system that says, “Well, we don’t think this is likely to become a problem, so we’re just going to hope and pray that what we believe turns out to be the case.” I certainly hope that the disease is not widespread in the United States, and at present we don’t have any evidence that it is. If people want to eat beef on that basis, they can probably feel secure that they’re not likely to contract this disease. But they shouldn’t have to worry about it. It ought to be dealt with at the policy level


 


Is that why you’re suggesting that just making an individual choice about what you consume isn’t really adequate to address the large-scale implications of this epidemic?


 


SR: Right. If you really care about safety, you ought to be getting on the phone and calling your Representative and Senators. You ought to be writing letters. You ought to be an activist and demand that the government and industry provide safe products, and that they pursue policies and practices that will make the products we consume safe.


 


 


Stauber and Rampton are the authors of the book MAD COW USA: COULD THE NIGHTMARE HAPPEN HERE? The book is available as a free download. Stauber and Rampton have also written Toxic Sludge Is Good For You! Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry (1995); Trust Us, We’re Experts! How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles with Your Future (2001); and Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush’s War on Iraq (2003). They put out PR Watch, a muckraking newsletter about the PR/Public Affairs industry.


 


Danny Postel is a contributing editor to Dædalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and the editor of the forthcoming book Why Kosovo Matters (Cybereditions).


 


This interview was originally broadcast on the radio show Free Associations and first appeared in print in LiP magazine, Nov. 1, 1998.


 

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