RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

How Now Mad Cow

Checked your e-mail lately? Chances are your mailbox runneth over with mad cow jokes. I'll save you the trouble of opening them and tell you there are two genres. One punchline: "American cows don't get mad ... they get even." Then there's the byte-devouring drawing of a crazy cartoon cow and a caption something like, "How to know if your cow is mad."

Not since the pregnant chad has such major human brain power been put to such minor use. Because mad cow disease-or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) -- isn't a joke. It's dead serious.

The British thought they could kid themselves out of an epidemic, and when the first few teenagers came down with BSE's human variant called Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. Creutzfeld-Jakob disease (CJD) appears naturally in humans, affecting about one in a million, usually elderly people. Faced with a nervous-system disease that kills 100% of its victims, the British buckled to the food industry and denied that it was a problem.

In humans, the early symptoms of CJD are similar to Altzheimer's or dementia-forgetfulness, stumbling, loss of purpose and so forth. But the symptoms worsen quickly, stealing life from the stricken before an accurate diagnosis can be made.

Not that an accurate diagnosis would help. There is no cure, no vaccination, no prevention -- we're not even sure how this disease spreads from one organism to another. The latest research has determined that the disabilities are not caused by bacteria or virus, which we know something about, but by a "prion," a building block of protein, that has managed to "fold" in a peculiar way, and can make other prions fold similarly.

We can't test for the disease until the victim is dead, and then we can see brains that have become spongey, or riddled with holes. When we find a victim, we don't know how to sterilize the tools used for an autopsy or how to dispose of the carcass. Some researchers suspect that the disease can be transferred from animal to pasture to animal, raising the question of how to protect new herds after diseased herds have been destroyed. Most of the US press has been uninterested in the story until recently. A few investigative journalists, including Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber of PR Watch in Madison, Wis., have followed the subject. Their book Mad Cow USA: Could the Nightmare Happen Here? was published in 1996 (Common Courage Press) or online at With the right software, you can download it for free.

When the first British kids died, British authorities assured the public that British beef was perfectly safe. A chilling picture in Mad Cow USA shows the British Minister of Agriculture with a big grin feeding a hamburger to his young daughter. Proposed caption: Denial isn't just a river in Egypt.

Anthony Daniels, a British physician writing under the pen name of Theodore Dalrymple, puzzled in the Wall Street Journal on the question of why Britain should spawn problems like CJD and the more recent foot-and-mouth disease. Dalrymple blames Brits for asking, "who is to blame?" rather than solving the problems. "We meet so much incompetence in our daily dealings, whether with the health service, the police, the social services, the education department, the tax authorities, and even the garbage collectors, that we now assume that whenever anything untoward happens, it must be someone's fault," Dalrymple says. Britons aren't alone in the blame game. Americans play it, too.

Americans should be spending money on research -- but preventive solutions won't make any big bucks for pharmaceutical firms until there's an epidemic. Still, here's a killer that can leap the boundaries of species, moving from sheep to cattle, and from cattle to humans. Isn't that worth investigating?

The majority of cases have been traced to animal feed made with ingredients gleaned from rendering plants. If you've ever looked at a bag of commercial animal feed, or even dried pet food, you know that it looks like little pellets or clumps. There's a variety of stuff in those clumps, mostly left over from industrial food-producers: animal proteins, flours, grains and so forth.

Feeding diseased animal proteins to healthy animals has infected the healthy ones. The disease then travels exponentially -- one animal infecting hundreds. But challenging the industrial food producers and rendering companies means attacking the most powerful multinational corporations.

On our farm, a deep distrust of things industrial has kept us from factory feeds, but last year one mama sheep presented us with triplets and I doubted that she could nurse them all, so I bought a bag of milk-replacer. A white powder, milk-replacer is mixed with water and fed from a bottle. It smells sweet and looks like powdered sugar. It wasn't until I talked to John Stauber a few weeks ago that I realized that milk replacer contains blood meal as a protein source. Luckily, the lambs had rejected it anyway (and the mom did fine.)

American authorities moved fast to ban animal parts from animal feed, and we aren't accepting imports of meat or feed from affected countries. Thinking that the brain and spinal cord are the main repositories for the prion, we've told meat plants to destroy them. We've even told people who lived in England for more than six months that we won't let their blood in our blood supply, pretending that those who lived there less than six months have less chance of eating infected beef than those there more than six months.

But with so little known about the disease we should be devoting considerable research to the problem. Remember that we don't know how spongiform encephalopathy spreads, and that recently Mad Cow Disease has popped up in other parts of Europe.

And variants have been found here.

Last year, several outdoors magazines reported on American hunter deaths from CJD. Two young men had contracted CJD in 2000 and died, perhaps from eating elk or deer meat that they killed in northeastern Colorado. It turns out that one in five animals in some herds have "chronic wasting disease," a form of spongiform encephalopathy. And we don't know how they got it or how it spreads.

Some hunters eat what they bag. Others look for trophies and, once they've bagged a trophy, they tie it to the truck and drive around. If they're hunting in Colorado, and they live in Indiana, they'll drive home, crossing state lines and stopping off to see relatives, getting the most bang for their buck, so to speak.

Once home, the carcass might go to a taxidermist, who mounts it. Or the hunter might be a do-it-yourselfer. Brains, spinal cords, and leftovers are disposed of in some creative way, often by dragging the carcass into the woods where coyotes can take care of it. Did I mention we don't really know how this disease spreads?

On March 7, 2001, the Ames, Iowa, Tribune reported on three flocks of sheep that had been quarantined in Vermont: "A federal judge ruled Tuesday that Vermont farmers will be forced to sell 350 East Friesian sheep imported from Belgium in 1996. The decision ends a two-year legal battle over sheep infected with transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease." The Tribune followed the story because the sheep might be shipped to an Ames facility for study.

They have a right to be concerned. Shipment containers, holding pens, carcasses, disposal facilities, feeds, will all require the highest level of oversight. But, we need the study.

Did I mention that we don't know exactly how this disease spreads?

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email: For more on Mad Cow Disease see A.V. Krebs' Calamity Howler.

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