What Are the Origins
of Mad Cow Disease?

Canada's Calgary Herald in a March 10 editorial has raised some interesting and provocative questions concerning the spread of mad cow disease, first diagnosed in the United Kingdom as originating in cattle being fed with sheep remains infected with scrapie, a sheep disease related to BSE (more popularly known as mad cow disease).

Some scientists believed that BSE had crossed the species barrier from sheep to cattle and subsequently to humans in the form Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD or nvCJD). Although ensuing research challenged this crossover theory, the consumption of contaminated feed by cattle has become the generally accepted source of BSE.

But, as the Herald notes, other researchers have brought forth some troubling questions about where and how this sinister disease is spread, particularly questioning the eating of BSE contaminated beef as the source of nvCJD.

They note that three of the young people who contracted nvCJD in the UK were vegetarians -- two of them because of religious beliefs -- and that the British cases of nvCJD seemed to have clustered around heavily sprayed hop fields in specific parts of England, but not in heavily populated London.

Another mystery: why are there no cases of the human disease among British butchers who worked directly with BSE-infected meat?

Even more interesting is why, under laboratory conditions, researchers found it impossible to infect a cow with BSE by feeding it infected material -- the generally accepted source, the Herald notes.

A British scientist, Dr. Steven Whatley, however, was able to recreate damaged prions (the mark of all these related diseases), the editorial notes, in the laboratory when he infused animal tissues with organophosphate pesticides.

"That seems to explain why there no cases of BSE on British organic farms -- where farmers do not use organophosphates," the Herald adds.

The last two points are the most troubling, the editorial points out, because that chemical poison is in widespread use in North America. Dr. Janice Miller, a researcher at the National Animal Disease Center in Ames, Iowa, has noted that organophosphates have an impact on the nervous system. She added she would like to see broader, more open-minded research into the original cause of BSE and nvCJD rather than presuming meat and bonemeal are the sole cause and carrier.

"There are also some questions closer to home," the Herald editorial continues, wondering "how did wild elk and deer in Wyoming apparently spontaneously contract a related BSE disease called Chronic Wasting Disease? These animals are vegetarians and do not eat beef or commercial animal feed? Could it have anything to do with the presence in the soil of high levels of selenium produced by cement factory emissions in the area?

"Some of these questions raise concerns over the consequences from the use of certain pesticides and chemical residues from industrial production," the Canadian paper's editorial concludes. "Perhaps governments need to broaden their research about the origins of BSE and consider some precautionary steps regarding the widespread use of organophosphates and other chemicals. These troubling questions should not be dismissed as scientific speculation -- they will raise some legitimate doubts in the minds of the consuming public."

UN Groups Warn of Chemical Poison Threat

In a joint statement, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) warns that around 30% of chemical poisons marketed in developing countries, with an estimated market value of $900 million annually, do not meet internationally accepted quality standards and are posing a serious threat to human health and the environment.

"These poor-quality pesticides frequently contain hazardous substances and impurities that have already been banned or severely restricted elsewhere," said Gero Vaagt, FAO Pesticide Management Group. Such chemical poisons, he added, often contribute to the accumulation of obsolete chemical poison stocks in developing countries.

The global market value for chemical poisons was estimated at $32 billion in 2000, with the share of developing countries around $3 billion. In developing countries, chemical poisons are used primarily for agriculture, but are also used for public health, such as insecticides for controlling insects spreading malaria.

The low quality of chemical poisons can be due to both poor production and formulation and the inadequate selection of chemicals. In many chemical poison products, for example, the active ingredient concentrations are higher than internationally accepted tolerance limits. In addition, poor-quality chemical poisons may be contaminated with toxic substances or impurities.

When labeling and packaging is also taken into account, the proportion of poor-quality chemical products in developing countries is even higher. The labeling is often written in the wrong language and fails to provide data on the active ingredient, application, date of manufacture and safe handling of the chemical.

For the consumer, the label is usually the only source of product information. According to WHO, falsely declared products have continued to find their way to markets for years without quality control.

FAO and WHO said that the problem of poor-quality chemical poisons is particularly widespread in sub-Saharan Africa, where quality control is generally weak. The UN agencies urged governments and international and regional organizations to adopt the world-wide accepted FAO/WHO chemical poison specifications to ensure the production and trade of good quality products. Countries should make these voluntary standards legally binding.

The FAO/WHO standards are especially important for developing countries that lack the infrastructure for proper evaluation of chemical poison products. Chemical poison industries, including producers of generic chemical poisons, should submit their products for quality assessment to FAO/WHO. FAO and WHO have agreed to cooperate in a joint program to develop specifications for chemical poisons.

Banana Workers Seek Chemical Injury Comp

Some 130 chemical poison victims have filed a $134 million lawsuit in a Managua, Nicaragua, court against their former US employers --- Chiquita International and Standard Fruit (owned by Dole Fresh Fruit Co.) and Dow, Occidental and Shell Oil, the chemical companies that produced DBCP (or dibromochloropropane), which was regularly sprayed during the 1960s and 1970s to combat insects that prey on bananas.

The individual lawsuits seek compensation for such maladies as infertility, cancer, damage to the liver and kidneys, and birth defects. The 130 claimants are the first of 3,000 expect to sue the companies and are represented by Engstrom, Lipscomb & Lack, the Los Angeles law firm that helped the renowned Erin Brockovich win the water pollution case depicted in the Oscar-nominated movie.

Within the past 25 years, 103 former plantation workers in Nicaragua and their offspring reportedly have died and 22,000 became seriously ill as a result of regular contact with the toxic fumigant DBCP, now classified as "extremely hazardous" by the World Health Organization.

As the San Francisco Chronicle's Mike Lanchin reports lawyers for the claimants planned to argue that the foreign companies knew about the chemical poison's potentially harmful effects and failed to provide adequate protection. "It would have been different if they were completely ignorant of the effects of DBCP, but they knew," said Walter Gutierrez, the victims' legal representative in Nicaragua.

Lawyers for the banana and chemical companies, Lanchin adds, "will argue that sterility in males is a common occurrence and caused by a variety of factors. They will also contend that banana workers rotate jobs with enough frequency that long-term exposure to DBCP would have been rare.

"Above all, the chemical companies will stress that all shipping invoices clearly outlined safety procedures and cautioned the user against breathing the product or getting it on the skin. Hence, it was the fruit companies' fault for not warning the workers."

"Dow freely concedes that excessive exposure to DBCP, either through inhalation or dermal exposure, will affect male fertility," says Scot Wheeler, Dow Chemical Co.'s public affairs manager. "Unfortunately, many of the users and purchasers of DBCP failed to follow the warning labels," he adds. "In our view, Dow should not be liable for their improper conduct."

In a written statement, Shell Oil told the Chronicle that it ceased production of the pesticide in 1977 and "believes that none of its DBCP product were used at any Standard Fruit Plantation or any other plantation in Nicaragua at any time. ... There are no scientific reports attributing death to the occupational application of DBCP."

DBCP has been described as a potentially carcinogenic agent by the US Environmental Protection Agency. The chemical poison was first manufactured by Dow and Shell in the 1950s to combat microscopic worms that attack banana plants. In 1964, it was licensed under the brand names Fumazone and Nemagon and was widely used on plantations owned by Dole, Del Monte, Chiquita and Standard Fruit. At one point, the manufacturers were exporting 24 million pounds of DBCP annually.

The Chronicle's Lanchin noted, that according to the Pesticide Action Network in San Francisco, toxicologists noted early on that DBCP caused male sterility in rats and atrophied the testicles of rabbits and monkeys.

"Although further research should have been undertaken, there was great pressure to begin sales of DBCP," Lori Ann Thrupp, then a research fellow in the Energy and Resources Program at the University of California at Berkeley, wrote in a 1989 article. "Company directors were anxious to reap the profits, and farmers were eager to use this powerful product."

UFW Signs Historic Strawberry Contract

In an industry that has historically been fiercely resistant to unionization, the United Farm Workers (UFW) recently achieved a significant victory with the announcement that it had signed a contract covering 750 Ventura County, California Coastal Berry strawberry workers.

Significant in the sense that Coastal Berry claims to own an 11% share of the US strawberry market it was the union's first major success in the $800 million California industry.

The 38-year old union, backed by the AFL-CIO, has made the unionization of strawberry workers a top priority since 1996. Its efforts had been previous thwarted by two contentious union elections in 1998 and 1999, both won on close votes by a local non-union organization, the Coastal Farmworkers Committee, led by workers who were opponents of the UFW.

Despite the setbacks, however, the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board, in an unprecedented ruling, certified the Farmworkers Committee as bargaining agent for Coastal Berry's Monterey-Santa Cruz counties workers and UFW for those in Ventura County. "People thought we got a lemon, but we made lemonade," said UFW spokesman Marc Grossman.

The Ventura contract includes a 7% wage increase spread over three years and an immediate boost in the basic wage to $6.75 an hour, along with a piece rate formula that should raise the average wage to $8.25 to $10 an hour, UFW President Arturo Rodriguez said.

Coastal Berry's Chairman David Gladstone said the contract provides "benefits unheard of in this industry." It includes free health care and a dental plan -- portable to Mexico -- a seniority system, six paid holidays, a vacation plan and job guarantees. "It gives the union a major stake in the strawberry industry," said Rodriguez, who has headed the UFW since the 1993 death of founder Cesar Chavez.

Coastal Berry also has a signed contract with the Farmworkers Committee covering about 1,000 workers.

A.V. Krebs operates the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, P.O. Box 2201, Everett, Washington 98203; email; see

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