TCS Daily

Some Common Sense For Carnivorous Concerns

By Kenneth Green - April 2, 2001 12:00 AM

"Stalking its prey through the supermarket aisles, the carnivore suddenly scents danger from the prey. Is that a mad cow I'm stalking? And what about this foot-and-mouth disease thing? ... I thought that was only something Dubya had to worry about."

In a departure from traditional environmental concerns over global warming, toxic chemicals and so on, the recent European outbreaks of mad cow disease and foot-and-mouth disease are not brought to us by humanity, but by "Nature, red in tooth and claw." It's understandable that Americans might be concerned about these livestock diseases, and might be unclear about the risk of them appearing in the United States, the risk of them harming humans, and so on.

So, a quick primer on the two diseases seems to be in order. Let's start with the least worrisome disease, the one that has little potential to infect humans - foot-and-mouth disease.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), "Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) is a severe, highly communicable viral disease of cattle and swine. It also affects sheep, goats, deer, and other ruminants (cloven-hoofed, cud-chewing animals). FMD is not a threat to human health." Or at least, not directly. The danger of foot-and-mouth disease is indirect - animals that become infected with FMD usually survive, but they lose most of their market value -- they produce little or no milk and they lose muscle tissue. Left unchecked, FMD would sweep through the livestock population, driving the costs of milk and meat through the roof, and rendering livestock export to uninfected countries impossible. Fortunately, the United States has not had an outbreak of FMD since 1929, when the last domestic outbreak was eradicated.

Anna Cherry the USDA's appointed expert about FMD, was cautiously optimistic when we spoke last week: "Our position is that we can eradicate foot and mouth disease if, God forbid, we ever have a problem. But we don't expect to have a problem because we take precautions against the disease taking hold here, including responding quickly to potential isolated outbreaks. We haven't had foot and mouth disease for 72 years, and we've avoided other serious avian and livestock diseases in that same time. We respect these illnesses, they're serious threats that we take seriously, but we have a lot of things working in our favor that give us confidence in controlling them"

Some might wonder why farmers don't vaccinate their livestock against FMD, rather than waiting for it to appear, and then engaging in mass culling of infected animals. After all, we vaccinate humans against polio, and the viruses are distantly related. Cherry explained that to me as well, pointing out that vaccination is cumbersome, not perfectly effective, and must be administered at least twice a year, ad infinitum. Furthermore, since vaccinated animals can still be carriers, one can't know that a vaccinated animal won't infect others. Thus, once you vaccinate any animals, you must vaccinate all of the animals, or keep the vaccinated population from ever mixing with the non-vaccinated population. Finally, once you vaccinate an animal for FMD, the animal will always test positive for the virus, making it impossible to tell vaccinated animals from infected ones. For these, and other reasons, international regulations on importation of animals does not allow for importation of vaccinated livestock. And so, FMD is controlled through observation, testing, and culling infected animals, to protect the health and market potential of entire livestock herds.

So there's little to fear (other than sky-high prices for meat and milk) from foot-and-mouth Disease. But mad cow disease is another story.

The scientific name for mad cow disease is bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which refers to the fact that the disease renders the brain of an infected animal spongy, rather than healthfully solid. The popular name for the disease, mad cow disease, refers to the fact that cows with spongy brains act somewhat, well, crazy.

The organism that causes BSE is thought to be a "prion," a recently discovered class of infectious disease that is smaller than viruses and made of pure protein, with none of the nucleic acids that other organisms use to convey hereditary information. Animals become infected with BSE (or scrapie, the variant that infects sheep) when their feed is augmented with extra protein -- protein from the non-marketable parts left behind when other animals are slaughtered. Humans can be exposed to BSE if they eat meat contaminated with brain or spinal tissue of infected animals.

I spoke with Anna Cherry about BSE, and again, she was cautiously optimistic about the safety of American livestock, and the consumers who dine on it. "The fact we don't have BSE in our country," she told me, "suggests that our livestock management, testing, and surveillance techniques are adequate for keeping the disease out of the United States, and we're constantly looking for ways to improve that confidence"

While vegetarian promoters are making hay while the sun shines, and are suggesting that vegetarianism is the answer, there are steps that even committed carnivores can take if worries about BSE are eating away at them, whether at home or abroad. First, one can stalk cattle that are fed only on corn, or out on the free-range. Having no added protein in their diet, such cattle are unlikely to be infected with BSE. If one doesn't trust restaurant or government certifications, there's another option. I spoke to Tracy Cross, the manager of my local kosher market, and asked him whether or not the rules for certifying beef as kosher would offer protection from buying BSE infected meat. "My observation, working at the kosher slaughter house," he told me, "suggests that it would be very unlikely for kosher meat to carry BSE because the cows processed for kosher consumption have to be corn-fed or free-range beef, and it is against the kosher laws to feed cows the tissue of other animals." Furthermore, meat from any animal that seems sick when it comes to the slaughterhouse can't be certified as kosher." "What if," I asked him, an asymptomatic cow with BSE somehow got to the kosher butcher?" It turns out that kosher laws dictate everything about how the cow is to be killed, and rule out opening the skull, or even nicking the spinal cord and contaminating the rest of the meat."

Now that, as my grandmother used to say, is good eating, or "good essen!"


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