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Bovine-CJD -- might you already have it?" asks the Official Mad Cow Disease Home Page (www.mad-cow.org). The site goes on to explain that "early warnings [include] insomnia, memory loss, depression, anxiety, withdrawal, and fearfulness."
If we go by those standards, I'm a candidate for variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), as are many others. I've eaten plenty of beef and beef products in the past few years, and I've even traveled in London and France since bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was found in the cattle there and before it was believed to be transmissible to humans. Easy to let my imagination run away from me -- at a full sprint.
But truth is I could be paranoid. I eat for a living, and on occasion it has crossed my mind that I could be eating for a dying, too. Add to that my husband's occupation -- he's a neurologist -- and it probably becomes pretty clear that I have way too much access to information about tainted beef and the havoc it could wreak on the human body.
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Some of the top researchers in the field have pooh-poohed the possibility of a vCJD outbreak in the United States. Dr. Charles Weissman, from the Imperial College School of Medicine at St. Mary's in London, notes in the Rochester Newsthat "it's possible a few cases of BSE may appear in the United States, but it will not result in the type of epidemic Britain had.
"A person is unlikely to catch vCJD from eating a sirloin steak," he continues. "BSE lies in the animal's nervous system -- certain organs and the brain and spinal cord -- so it's much more likely to appear in products like sausage and meat pies.... The chance of Americans catching vCJD is virtually nil."
Other neurologists agree, adding that the odds are much greater of being stricken with practically any other transmittable disease. In Miami, for instance, we're much more susceptible to tuberculosis, given the number of nonimmunized immigrants coming in with strains of the once-rare illness. Since various forms of tuberculosis have or are on the way to becoming intractable when confronted with antibiotics, we're far more likely to experience a pestilence of the lungs than a plague of the brain.
The national climate reflects a certain complacency regarding vCJD. According to the Boston Globe: "Beef now outsells chicken in restaurants, 7.2 billion servings to 5.2 billion in 1999 ... [and] steak house traffic [is] up by 5 percent, twice the increase of the restaurant industry as a whole.... As the firestorm in Britain over mad cow disease spreads to the rest of Europe, and the U.S. supply gets a scientific seal of approval, there's the sense that we're gorging on beef while the going is good." We can see the steak-house war being waged on a local level: Many of the high-end chains like Ruth's Chris and Morton's are duking it out in the suburbs, and Argentine meat palaces have been proliferating at a higher rate than cockroaches.
Nor has mad cow panic affected the meat business in Miami. At Norman's, where beef is just part and parcel of an overall experience, Norman Van Aken concludes with some amazement that sales of meat dishes -- caesar salad with prime steak tartare, for example -- are "surprisingly high." Arthur Forgette, general manager for Smith & Wollensky on South Beach, reports, "There's been no concern about [mad cow] yet. It hasn't even been an issue." Of course, he admits, it's "pretty scary being in the steak-house business. Most of it [BSE] has been contained in the processed beef -- ground beef, sausages. I'm sure people have concerns about it. But there've been no reported cases in the United States yet, which precludes people asking about it."
In the end the mad cow consequences for Miami probably will have more to do with politics than the disease process itself. To wit: On February 2, citing a lack of requested documentation proving the nation was BSE-free, Canada declared Brazilian beef imports off-limits. As partners in the Free Trade Area of the Americas (NAFTA), the United States and Mexico were obliged to follow suit, banning Brazilian processed beef products from the domestic markets. Brazil took it lightly at first, protesting by tossing Canadian ducks into the garbage, emptying bottles of Molson beer, and excommunicating Alanis Morisette from the radio. But as the embargo on Brazilian exports continued, that country responded angrily by asking citizens to boycott potassium chloride fertilizer, Canada's biggest export to Brazil, and attempting to sue the Canadian government over lost income and damage to the South American nation's reputation as a safe beef exporter.
Given that the Brazilian population in Miami is one of the biggest in the United States, I expected a hue and cry regarding the U.S. stance on that policy. But probably the only way a Brazilian crisis would grab center stage here is if Elian Gonzalez had eaten tainted rodizio. As it is, the Brazilian beef ban was lifted on February 23, following a Canadian-sponsored fact-finding mission sent to Brazil that concluded the country was free of BSE.
Fortunately Brazil didn't seem to suffer too badly: Exports are up 80 percent over last year at this time. And no Brazilian restaurant here even seemed the least bit affected by the three-week boycott. Marcello Medeiros, marketing director for Steak Masters, a rodizio palace in Bayside Marketplace, says business has been about the same. Not that he expected it to change -- though Steak Masters uses Brazilian-style cuts of meat, the actual beef comes from the United States.