Monday, December 29, 2003

A Beef with Ann Veneman

The Wall Street Journal is reporting today (online edition) that Federal investigators now estimate that 81 cattle across the US may have been exposed to bovine spongiform encephalopathy, otherwise known as BSE or Mad Cow Disease. Relatively little seems to be known about the first cow to test positive for BSE in the U.S. Discovered in Washington, the cow was 6.5 years old when slaughtered and may be from Canada. All beef slaughtered in the same plant as that cow on that day has been recalled.

The administration has been quick to downplay the health risks associated with this case. In an interview with CNN, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman goes so far as to say that "...I want to make sure that everyone understands that we have a safe beef supply and no one should hesitate. "

I realize that the federal government wants to avoid causing a panic in the American beef-eater and protect the American beef industry, but such statements are dangerous. The fact is, some 37 million cattle are slaughtered each year in the United States. Of these, an average of 20,000 are tested. How, then, can we possibly know the extent of BSE present in the population of American cattle? Until we do know, the government should not be so quick to dismiss the risk to our beef supply and therefore the beef consumer. Veneman also claims that because the brain and spinal cord were removed, there is little risk of contamination from this cow. Yet, studies (see Stanley Prusiner and others) are beginning to show that the muscle of infected animals contains prions (the infectious agent) as well, although it is still unclear whether muscle prions are as infectious as nervous system prions. Again, the government should not be so quick to dismiss potential health risks.

To their credit, the government has taken the good steps of banning ruminant-to-ruminant feed (1997) and the CDC has a national monitoring system for Creutzfeld Jakob Disease, the human equivalent of BSE (variant CJD is the result of "infection" from contaminated cattle). Unfortunatley for epidemiology, vCJD does not develop clinically until years, perhaps decades, after exposure to contaminated beef. This monitoring system will clearly be inadequate for preventing an outbreak of BSE/CJD.

I, for one, will be avoiding beef products until the status of American cattle becomes clear. Perhaps we should require testing of every slaughtered cow as in Japan. While I agree that the health risk posed by BSE in the U.S. is probably low, we simply do not know enough to be sure one way or the other. Until we do know more, I'll be sticking to non-beef and soy meat. But if any of you out there must have your beef, you may want to consider organic. Organically fed cows are fed with diets that avoid all animal products.

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