The Beef on Tainted Bovine

Jeremy Eaton

Bovine-CJD -- might you already have it?" asks the Official Mad Cow Disease Home Page ( 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.

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 News that "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 rodiziopalace 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.

Likewise Tuscan Steak uses American cuts, not just here but in London, where it recently set up shop. Tuscan also allows its patrons to choose Scottish beef, though I suspect that option will soon end. Scotland just contracted foot and mouth disease (FMD) from England, where an outbreak of that virus a couple of weeks ago already has been at least as devastating as BSE, if not more so.

Scientists say that FMD poses little or no risk to humans, but we can carry and spread it to any cloven-hooved animals including goats, sheep, and pigs. The disease is so contagious that hiking areas in rural England have been declared off-limits to foot traffic, as FMD can be carried across borders on the soles of people's shoes. Cars are being sprayed with disinfectant. Ireland is now enforcing showers at entry points before allowing tourists to enter the country.

The only way to eradicate the disease is to kill the animals themselves; thus infected carcasses are being burned all over Britain, Scotland, France, and Ireland, where FMD has been discovered to date. In the Netherlands and Germany, thousands of cattle from Britain are being routinely destroyed as a precaution. There is a vaccine for FMD, but beef nations all work hard at eliminating the disease naturally; vaccinated beef, live or in the form of steaks, fetches a lower price on the international market because it implicates the country's breeding and slaughtering practices

All the latest information concerning FMD has only clouded the facts about BSE. The simultaneous epidemics, while certainly spelling economic disaster for European Union farmers as well as governments, also have fueled an unhealthy amount of distrust. Chile is slaughtering cattle from Denmark. The United States is confiscating sheep from Belgium. Britain, the current scourge of Europe, is inspecting shipments of beef products from Germany and Holland and consequently has discovered traces of spinal cords -- banned materials -- in meat from Holland.

Even Brazil, so outraged over its treatment by NAFTA, has closed its borders to grass-fed Argentine cattle, which had finally been declared an FMD- and FMD-vaccine-free country in May 2000. But shortly thereafter, cattle smuggled over the border from Paraguay into Argentina resulted in a fresh FMD outbreak, ruining Argentina's chances of ruling the meat market.

So it also seems everyone is looking for a scapegoat -- or scrapie goat. Britain is the obvious pariah. But for the latest outbreak of FMD, Britain actually first blamed South America, namely Brazil, which accounts for fifteen percent of British beef imports. Next Britain cited its own Chinese food restaurants, where waste is transformed into pig swill, for contaminating the feed with FMD.

The end result of all this fault-finding is that while many countries will suffer, others will profit. Thai crocodile farms are expected to do some big business this year as Europe searches for beef, veal, mutton, and pork replacements. Reuters reports that Germans in particular are cultivating a craving for South African emu and ostrich, two big birds whose flesh is red and tastes similar to beef. New Zealand says that sales of locally raised venison are booming, and many American restaurateurs are turning to bison (formerly called American buffalo).

If there's anything to be gained from this agriculturally engineered mess, it's the realization that by interfering with the natural order of things, we have brought BSE and vCJD on ourselves. Perhaps it will stir us to more humane practices, provoking a return to organic farming methods. Perhaps "meat byproducts" will soon be considered dirty words. Perhaps not. But at the very least, one Polish company is set to reap benefits -- it recently started offering clients mad cow insurance. Polish spouses have surely discovered by now the keys to a perfect murder: "Beef. It's what's for dinner."

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