It's a Mad Mad Mad Cow World

Scary brain food

Wise Kimmi. Or is she? Although Australia (where Survivor II was filmed) may currently be "safe" from mad cow, and Kimmi refused to consume bovine brain, she may have received a blood transfusion from someone who lived in Europe, though it is not clear that prions are transmitted via blood. Or maybe she has ingested a German-made Mamba fruit chew, which is based on a beef-based gelatin. She could even be at risk from, say, her makeup or herbal supplements that, the New York Times reported a couple of weeks ago, could contain "brains, testicles, tracheas and glands from cows and other animals."

At least so say the alarmists, who are comparing the possible vCJD outbreak to the AIDS epidemic. About 250 Websites are solely dedicated to debunking (or fueling, depending on how you look at such things) the myths about mad cow. The truth is only a few nuggets of valid information are known about how vCJD is transmitted from cow to human or from human to human. The former could be controlled if the disease is eradicated in cattle. (To that end feeds containing MBM are banned in the United States and elsewhere, but perhaps the bans aren't enforced as stringently as they should be; see next week's installment.) The latter is probably where the real danger lies.

An immeasurable number of AIDS cases was transmitted long before the disease was even recognized. In the case of BSE, the Independent reported the British government realized in 1995 that the disease posed a real threat to humans, and the nation suppressed the information for at least six months. The first case of BSE was diagnosed in a cow in 1986, but the disease was not believed to be dangerous to other species (i.e., people). Therefore the government had carried out only token enforcement of slaughterhouse and feed-lot regulations concerning MBM. The delay in 1995, the government was forced to admit in official documents, was caused by emergency enforcement of the rules, so that all abattoirs would appear to have been conformant all along when the devastating news was announced.

Jeremy Eaton
Jeremy Eaton
Jeremy Eaton

The end result is that many humans could be harboring and transmitting the disease without knowing it. Neurologists say that regular CJD could be acquired from growth hormone (from the pituitary gland), which bodybuilders inject, or from retinal transplants. It is not clear whether the damaged prions could be transmitted via blood, but the United States, where no BSE or vCJD has yet been discovered, is taking no chances.

According to the Associated Press, the "government will soon ban certain frequent travelers to France and Portugal from donating blood as a precaution against mad cow disease." In addition the FDA, which already has forbidden donations by anyone who spent "a total of six months in Britain between 1980 and 1996," is going to prohibit donations from anyone who has resided in France or Portugal for a total of ten years since 1980. The Red Cross is almost certainly going to refuse blood from volunteers who have lived in Britain for three months or Europe for a year. Yet these precautions may be not only useless but inflammatory.

For one thing you definitely diagnosis BSE and vCJD with brain biopsies, which can occur only after death. Tests are expensive, and screening practices and surveillance techniques are provincial in many countries. Cattle ranchers in some places are deliberately ignoring dangers, while a few governments are denying or refusing to hand over information concerning the possibility of mad cow disease in their nations. Paranoid readers would do better to concentrate their fears here rather than on possibly contaminated blood supplies. But we focus on the blood, say disease researchers, because this is what we have learned from AIDS, a retrovirus that is not at all similar to prions.

No doubt Survivor II producers have experienced backlash from animal rights groups for the pressure on contestants to consume carnivorous products. These same groups, like the religious right concerning the AIDS epidemic, are smug in their beliefs that meat-eaters finally are getting what they deserve. But unless that cow brain was tested before landing on Kimmi's plate, the Survivor II producers may have unwittingly exposed the cast to a fatal illness. Forget lawsuits launched by former contestants over whether their ejections from the show were rigged. Never mind clauses and contracts signed by the contestants, saying they fully understand the risks to their persons. Mad cow disease causes the kind of panic that, like a fire in a movie theater, more often than not results in a stampede.

Next week: How susceptible is the United States, and what are the implications for our global foods and economy?

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