Mad Cows and the Colonies It Can't Happen Here? Don't Bet on It. U.S. Farmers are Still Practicing 'Cow Cannibalism' Years After Britain Gave it Up

In 1985, a previously healthy Holstein dairy cow in England became edgy and uncoordinated. It had difficulty standing and walking, and became aggressive and unpredictable. Death came quickly, and an examination revealed a startling fact: Its brain was riddled with holes, like a sponge. The cow’s condition was later given a name: Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or BSE. “Mad cow disease” had arrived.

mad cow disease
Credit: Thomas Hawk, FlickrCC

Nothing like this had ever been seen in cattle before. However, mad cow disease closely resembled scrapie, a disease rife among Britain’s sheep, and two human diseases: Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), a rare condition among older people; and kuru, endemic to some tribes in Papua New Guinea. Kuru was believed to be spread by cannibalistic rituals there involving eating the brains of others; the affected cow had been given feed which included, among other things, rendered brains and spinal columns from sheep. Adding it up, government scientists suspected that the disease had been caused by scrapie-infected feed.

The disease spread rapidly. In 1987, there were 20 reported cases of BSE in Britain; by 1988, there were 731. In 1988, British authorities ordered the destruction of all cattle showing symptoms of BSE and, the following year, banned the use of rendered animals in cattle feed. At the same time, however, the government insisted there was no reason to suspect there was any danger of BSE “crossing the species barrier” and being transmitted to humans. In a famous incident intended to boost public confidence, the country’s then-Agriculture Minister, John Gummer, forced a hamburger on his four-year-old daughter and made her eat it in front of the television cameras.

But the public wasn’t buying it. Even after the government banned the use of rendered cows and sheep as cattle feed, BSE cases continued to rise, and by the mid-1990s were being reported at around 900 a week. Schools and hospitals banned beef from their menus.

Then, in 1995, came the bombshell. Ten people died of an entirely new strain of Creutzfeldt-Jakob. They differed from the usual CJD cases in three important respects: the victims were young (the oldest were in their 20s, 40 years younger than most CJD patients); the most noticeable early symptom was loss of coordination, rather than senility, as had previously been most common; and their brains resembled BSE-infected cows more than typical CJD-infected humans. In March 1996, the British government announced that there was probably a link between this new CJD strain and eating BSE-infected meat.

Cows Eating Cows

When news of mad cow disease first began to break, Britons were shocked to discover that their cud-chewing, or ruminant, cattle were being fed animal parts. But the practice of feeding ruminants to ruminants, in Britain at least, dates back to the turn of the century. Rather than waste the meat and tissue of animals that had died, farmers would strip the carcass of meat for human consumption and then boil, sterilize and crush the rest for feeding back to healthy animals. The process satisfied the widespread desire of the times to avoid waste, provided a good source of protein for the livestock and, at least as important, was cheap.

With the growing industrialization of agriculture, however, what had begun as an exercise in self-sufficiency grew into an industry of its own. Ever more intensive farming methods locked the industry into a vicious cycle. As farming output increased, so did the amount of inedible parts from slaughtered animals. The easiest way to dispose of these was to continue feeding them back to other livestock. Farmers readily used the extra protein to further increase output from their animals, which led to the production of greater waste, which was recycled back into animal feed.

“What has been happening,” says Dr. Michael W. Fox, vice-president for bioethics and farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), “is that biological processes are being turned on their head. First, we have this enormous amount of waste generated from animal-based agriculture. Then, as a way of dealing with that waste, we are feeding it back to animals, trying to turn cows into something they’re not.”

Lucrative Industry

The practice of feeding rendered animal parts to livestock started later in the United States than in Britain, but it is now conducted on a far larger scale here than anywhere else. Of approximately 90 million beef cattle in America, some 75 percent are routinely given feed that includes rendered animal parts. In 1989, Britain produced 398,000 tons of rendered animal protein; every year, the United States produces 3.3 million tons. That protein doesn’t only come directly from slaughterhouses, either: Euthanized pets, road-kill, outdated supermarket meat and the fat and grease from restaurants are all re-used and recycled in this way.

There is a National Renderers Association, and a magazine, Renderer. One of the largest rendering companies, Darling-Delaware (now known as Darling International) had a reported revenue in 1988 of $459 million. Clearly, rendering is not only an intrinsic part of modern methods of raising livestock, it is big business. Small wonder that feeding animal protein to cattle has continued unabated in this country (see sidebar).

“There’s no way I’d touch British beef right now,” says writer John Stauber, director of the Center for Media and Democracy, which has been investigating the BSE-CJD story for several years. “But the irony is that Britain at least banned the practices that caused BSE years ago,” Stauber adds, “whereas in this country those same practices have continued to be used. Given the relative size of the cattle herds in the U.S. and Great Britain, I’d say the risk of contamination right now is even greater over here than over there.”

There have been no cases of BSE officially recorded in the U.S. and, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, imports of British beef have been banned since 1989. But that doesn’t mean the disease hasn’t reached North America. In April, the Calgary Herald reported the discovery of the first known case of “mad cow” case on this continent, at an elk farm near Regina, Saskatchewan in Canada. The elk reportedly has Transmissable Spongiform Encephalopathy (TSE). Elk are farmed in Western Canada for their velvet antlers, which are sold as an aphrodisiac to the Asian market. The disease can be spread by consumption of the antler tissue.

A spokesman for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) told E that, under a USDA observation and inspection program, any slaughterhouse cattle which display BSE-type symptoms are destroyed immediately. But not everybody is convinced that means U.S. beef is safe.

The Risk Here

A July 1993 petition filed by the Washington-based Foundation on Economic Trends (FET) calls on the USDA and the FDA to mandate a halt to the feeding of rendered animal parts to livestock as a vital step to limit the risk of mad cow disease breaking out in the United States. According to the petition, five years after Britain banned the practice, the FDA continues to permit the use of sheep products in cattle f

eed, despite the fact that sheep in the U.S. have been infected with scrapie for at least 40 years.

Levels of scrapie in the U.S. are believed to be below those in Britain, and the relative number of sheep involved in the rendering process is much lower also. Most of the rendered protein in cattle feed in this country is from other cattle. Says Caroline Smith DeWaal, of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), “Accordingly, the risk of transmission should be a lot less. Unless, of course, some form of BSE already exists in cattle over here—and there has been some research which suggests that it does.”

That research, by Dr. Richard Marsh of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, focused on an outbreak of transmissible mink encephalopathy (TME) at a mink farm in Wisconsin in 1985. Scrapie was ruled out as the possible agent, as the mink were fed no sheep parts; their meal was composed of five percent horse meat and 95 percent rendered cattle.

Altogether, according to a report by the Washington, D.C.-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), there have been five recorded cases of TME: in 1947, 1961, 1963 (when there were two outbreaks) and 1985. The constant among them is that the mink were all fed rendered cattle.

After the 1985 outbreak, experimenters injected diseased mink brains into Holstein cattle, which then developed spongiform encephalopathy. Remains of these cattle were then fed to healthy mink, which in turn contracted a form of TME, demonstrating clearly that the species barrier can be easily crossed. Marsh and his colleagues wrote that, if TME was indeed caused by the feeding of cattle parts to mink, “There must exist an unrecognized BSE-like infection in American cattle.” Furthermore, given the dates of the earlier TME outbreaks, American cattle seem likely to have been infected for several decades.

If BSE, or some variant of it, does already exist in U.S. cattle, then the risk of it spreading is likely to be extremely high. According to the FET petition, on a national average some 14 percent of all cattle, by mass, are fed back to other cattle in the form of rendered animal protein—a process John Stauber refers to as “cow cannibalism.” Perhaps even more worrying, the petition alleged that virtually all so-called “downer” cattle—cows that look healthy but drop dead prematurely for unknown reasons—are sent to slaughterhouses to be readied for human consumption or for rendering into animal feed.

Dr. Joe Gibbs of the National Institutes of Health says, “There is sound reason to suspect a strong link [between CJD and BSE] in Britain. Are we sitting on a time bomb? There’s no way of knowing. But I wouldn’t be honest if I told you there was nothing to worry about.”

FDA Foot-Dragging

Yet, even as evidence and concern grew on the other side of the Atlantic, the U.S. government failed to respond. In August 1994, after FET had filed a second petition, the FDA did publish a proposed rule that the use of byproducts from adult sheep and goats would not be approved in animal feed. However, the agency has failed to actually enact that rule, and has delayed its enforcement on several occasions. An FDA spokesman told E that a new ruling, which would apply to the use of all ruminants in animal feed, is expected “within a couple of months.”

Asked why the government still had not implemented any regulations, eight years after Britain had banned the feeding of ruminants to ruminants, the spokesman expressed confidence in the USDA observation plan and protested that, even now, there is no demonstrated link between BSE and CJD. “The science has been a moving target on this one,” he said. “But we’re putting it on the fast track. We’re serious about this.”

“The FDA says it is going to do a lot of things, but I’ll believe it when I see it,” says Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the International Center for Technology Assessment (CTA) in Washington, D.C., and author of the two FET petitions. “There’s no doubt about it, the agency has been negligent in its responsibilities to consumers in its failure to take adequate action.”

On March 27 of this year, CTA filed a third petition, and announced that if the FDA had not taken the requested measures within a month, it would take the agency to court.

There is nothing like consensus on how many people are at risk from mad cow disease. An April 1996 article in the London Independent reported that studies indicated CJD deaths in Britain would be around 50 in 1996, the same as before the disease.

But British microbiologist Dr. Richard Lacey predicts that, because of the mad cow’s long incubation period, the worst could be yet to come, and that as many as 500,000 people per year could start dying in Britain after the year 2000. The Economist countered, “It would be more accurate to say that the outcome will be between zero (because no one yet knows for sure whether CJD can be caused by eating diseased beef) and tens of millions (that is, everyone who has ever eaten the stuff).”

The disease has already left its mark. Beef consumption across the European Union has dropped by 30 percent and consumers have been shocked by the revelation that cows are routinely fed animal parts, including other cows. Pundits have speculated that the industry may never fully recover, even if no more mad cow-linked deaths are recorded.

So far, there has been no obvious crisis of confidence in beef in this country, and most consumers appear comfortable with the official line that American beef is safe. It remains to be seen whether the government will take action in time to live up to those reassurances; or whether it is already too late, and mad cow disease is even now poised to erupt in the U.S. as it has in Britain. Perhaps, as columnist Colman McCarthy recently noted in The Washington Post, “Eating cows is the real madness.”