Be Careful What You Eat
December 31, 2003

Maria Tomchick

In the days following the discovery of mad cow disease in Washington State, the US cattle industry has been hard at work calming Americans' fears that we've been eating tainted meat. Our weak regulatory agencies--the Food and Drug Administration and the US Department of Agriculture--are telling us that they're doing a good job of protecting us from the ravages of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

Here's a little dose of reality for anyone and everyone who wants to know if they've eaten tainted meat.

I grew up on a dairy farm in Washington State. It was a family farm: about 100 cows and an equal number of young livestock that ranged in age from newborn calves to two-year-old heifers ready to give birth to their first calves and enter the milk herd. About 120 cows was the maximum for us. We simply couldn't milk more animals in a day; there was only so much time, and we had only so much energy. We used some mechanization, but we still had the ability to give the cows a certain amount of individual care, to help the ones that were sick, and to adjust the milking process for cows who needed special attention.

What made this particularly important is that my parents were career dairy farmers. Mom didn't have a secretarial job in town and Dad didn't hire out to do contract work just so we could make ends meet. My parents made the business work for them from the 1960s through the mid-1980s, while they raised a family. By the time they sold the farm, however, there were fewer and fewer families able to make a living on a dairy farm. They were being displaced by large, commercial, highly mechanized, corporate dairy farms.

The cow that tested positive for BSE came from a large corporate farm in Mabton, Washington. The farm has 4,000 animals. Our local newspaper here in Seattle ran a front-page photo of the feed lot on this farm. It was a filthy hole--a far cry from the loafing sheds and green, productive fields we had on our farm when I was growing up.

To milk 4,000 cows every day, twice a day, a farm like that has to turn the animals into cogs in a machine. There's no individual attention. The animals are hooked up to milking machines with timers on them. After about four minutes, the machines turn off and fall on the floor, and that's it. Forget the fact that, depending on the animal, cows need anywhere from 2 minutes to 15 minutes to give all their milk. If a cow finishes in 2 minutes, the machine stays on and the animal suffers--or she kicks it off, which gets her added to the list of animals headed for the slaughterhouse. If a cow needs more time, forget it, she suffers, gives less milk, under-performs, and goes on the list of animals headed for the slaughterhouse.

Back in the 1980s, I remember my parents' shock after reading that, on average, cows live only an average of 2 years on commercial, corporate farms. We were appalled at the thought that big farms were sending their young, 4-year-old cows to the butcher. In our minds, that was a failure. Cows don't even reach their full growth until they're 5 years old, when they hit their prime and give the most milk. The waste is simply unimaginable. And we understood that cows can get sick and have a bad year, and so we gave our animals a second chance. On our farm, cows often lived 10 or 15 years and, in the case of two or three really stubborn ones, they lived nearly 20 years.

Now, it takes about 5-7 years for symptoms of BSE--bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as "Mad Cow Disease"--to appear in an infected cow. If, however, most corporate dairy farms are sending their abused, used-up, broken-down cows off to the slaughterhouse at younger and younger ages, before they reach the key five-year mark, then no amount of testing is going to make the meat supply safe. A ban on butchering downer cows--animals that stagger, can't walk, or exhibit other signs of BSE-will make no difference, either. And holding sick animals in quarantine while they're being tested won't work, not unless we want to quarantine and test all young cattle sent to slaughter or ban all animals younger than five years old.

"Experts" like to remind us that there have been no confirmed cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (the human form of spongiform encephalopathy) in the United States. That's technically true, but in practice, it's a lie. Every year, 300 new cases of CJD are diagnosed in the US. It's a diagnosis of elimination. After a person comes down with the symptoms, he or she is tested for a variety of neurological disorders. When those come up negative and the disease begins to progress rapidly, the diagnosis becomes CJD. Few of these cases are ever confirmed, because the best way to test for it is by removing brain tissue and examining it under a microscope after the patient has already died. Autopsies are seldom performed for two simple reasons: it's expensive to do, and the fear of catching the disease from infected brain tissue--even in the sterile, controlled environment of a hospital or laboratory--is too great to risk cutting open the brain case of a person who's already dead.

We're supposed to rest easy with assurances that the brain and spinal cord of the Mabton cow were "ripped" out of the cow's carcass in the slaughterhouse by an inefficient machine that often doesn't recover all the neurological tissue. The machine routinely leaves behind spinal cord tissue to be ground into hamburger, sausage, and other products for human consumption, and the USDA admits that to be the case. One-third of the hamburger, lunch meat, sausage, and processed ground meat made from after the brain and spinal cord have been mechanically removed from carcasses contains spinal cord tissue in it.

But "muscle cuts" are supposed to be safe, they tell us. Steaks and roasts are supposedly free of any traces of BSE. Yet a man in Britain recently died from CJD, which he contracted from a blood transfusion. Tell me, then, if it's in the British human blood supply, why wouldn't it be in the blood of infected cattle, and therefore in "muscle cuts" like steaks and roasts? Freeze-dried cow blood is sprayed into the artificial milk corporate feed lots give young calves, so as to boost its protein content. The four-year-old Mabton cow almost certainly contracted SSE during this stage of her young life.

Cooking, which kills e coli, doesn't do a damn thing for BSE. It's not a bacteria or virus; it's a prion, a very simple, extremely durable protein that can't be killed by freezing or extreme heat. Researchers have put prions into autoclaves to try and kill them, but they survived. So the slaughterhouse process of rendering down miscellaneous parts of the cow--a process that involves extreme heat--isn't enough to kill prions. When the USDA tells us that the brain and spinal cord of the Mabton cow were rendered down for use in cosmetics or feed for pigs, chickens, and pets, they're just not telling us that the prions may still enter the human food chain--a little further down the line than we expected.

We're supposed to believe that pigs don't get mad cow disease. But pigs, particularly pigs on enormous corporate hog farms, have an even shorter life span than cows do.

And then there are chickens. Here's a nightmare for you, particularly for any vegetarians and vegans reading this article. Experts say that chickens' digestive tracts can't absorb prions, and the prions pass right through into their manure. But organic farms often use fertilizer made with chicken manure, and many organic packaged fertilizers for home gardens have chicken manure in them. Remember that the next time you let your toddler play in the garden, or the next time you juice a carrot without scrubbing it first.

The experts will tell you I'm being overly alarmist. They point to the regulations, to the fact that companies were banned from grinding up cattle tissue and putting it in cattle feed way back in 1997, so everything's just fine now. Downer cows are tested, meat can be recalled, the safeguards are all in place.

Don't bet on it. First of all, BSE emerged in the British cattle population in the 1980s. The US cattle industry resisted any ban on putting cattle parts into cattle feed for well over a decade, which has raised the risk of BSE infection here in the US. The Mabton cow, it turns out, was born just before the ban went into place in 1997.

Post-1997, the USDA was put in charge of inspecting feed mills to make sure they comply with the ban, but its enforcement powers have been gutted by successive budget cuts and by employing people with close ties to the very agribusiness companies they're supposed to regulate. For example, one feed mill here in Washington State--the one my parents used 20 years ago--has been cited for multiple safety violations by the USDA, from 1989 through 2002. Each time, the company has received a slap on the wrist for violations that range from a lack of proper paperwork to allowing prohibited animal parts into cattle feed. And it's not alone. Our local Friends of the Earth chapter says that as many as a dozen other feed mills here in Washington State have been caught violating safety laws, but the USDA is not releasing any details about what those violations were.

Meanwhile, the Mabton cow's carcass passed through the system, was processed for food, sent to distributors and grocery stores, and was almost certainly cooked and eaten before the results of its BSE tests were completed and announced to the public. That's how our mechanized, inhuman, corporate, non-regulated food supply system works.