I don't normally pay much attention to food scares. When the green onions at a western Pennsylvania Chi-Chi's apparently infected patrons with hepatitis A, I went right on adding scallions to my everyday salads. A report about farm-raised salmon and PCB's made little impact. But mad cow disease discovered in a solitary dairy cow from Sunny Dene Farm, in Southern Washington state, had me spooked.
I could hardly look at the brick of ground sirloin in my freezer, much less cook it up.
But then, what do I know? Though I am a health writer, I have the knowledge of a layperson when it comes to the processes of beef production and neurodegenerative diseases like mad cow. I found myself stringing together disparate factoids about prions, "downer" cattle and pockmarked human brains -- into a necklace of doom.
But what did the experts think? I queried a science reporter, an expert on microbes in food, a public-health nutritionist, an investigative journalist, a risk analyst, and a cattle rancher. Were these authorities -- whose food politics varied wildly -- changing their own eating habits for fear of contracting mad cow?
Author Eric Schlosser hasn't. But then, he hasn't bought beef with antibiotics or growth hormones, eaten fast-food burgers, or allowed his children to consume ground beef since researching his bestselling 2001 exposé, "Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal." "No one should be panicked about mad cow," says Schlosser. But neither, he argues, can we be complacent.
After all, mad cow -- or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) -- is a horrid ailment. Cattle who have contracted the disease become demented and lose the ability to walk. As for humans, eating BSE-infected meat may lead to a lethal brain disease called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or vCJD. Striking mostly young people, vCJD is characterized by progressive dementia and a brain riddled with microscopic holes. It's thought to be caused by the buildup of rogue prions -- abnormally shaped proteins -- in the central nervous system. But vCJD appears extremely rare. Though more than 178,000 cattle have been diagnosed with BSE in Britain, so far only 143 cases of human vCJD have been reported there. Only one case of vCJD has been identified in the United States, in 2002.
Still, Schlosser dismisses the effectiveness of current U.S. government surveillance programs instituted to contain BSE. "We have no idea how many cattle or what proportion of our cattle have BSE, because we're not testing in any meaningful way," he says. "We don't have a really tough feed restriction system, which is the source of the problem to begin with." (BSE can spread when cattle eat the remains of their BSE-infected brethren.)
In 1997, the Food and Drug Administration banned the use of the remains of cattle and other ruminants in the feed of cattle. But Schlosser contended in a recent New York Times Op-Ed that this ban is full of loopholes. "[The] current ban still allows the feeding of cattle blood to young calves -- a practice that Stanley Prusiner [who won the Nobel Prize for his work on prions and has a for-profit company marketing tests for BSE] calls 'a really stupid idea.'"
But the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other government agencies contend that the measures they have already taken -- the feed ban, a ban on the importing of ruminants from countries like England where BSE has been found, and testing some 20,000 head of cattle in 2003 for the disease -- render the beef supply safe. Likewise, in the last few weeks the government has proposed a flurry of new, more stringent regulations such as banning "downer" cattle (those that can't walk) from the food system. "This finding, while unfortunate, does not pose any kind of significant risk to the human food chain," said Secretary of Agriculture Ann M. Veneman, about the first U.S. case of BSE, at a Dec. 23 press conference.
Dean Cliver, for one, still has an appetite for beef. "I am an unabashed meat eater," says the UC-Davis professor of food safety who served on a 2001 FDA panel on prion diseases. "I eat tongue -- as recently as yesterday," he says, almost proudly. (Tongue may also include portions of the tonsils, a potential site for BSE prions. The USDA has specifically said tonsils are to be removed from slaughtered cattle.) "Our meat system is as conducive to wholesomeness as you could possibly expect it to be," he says. "I think the Europeans have gone off the deep end in terms of what they're afraid of."
Philip Yam, news editor at Scientific American and author of "The Pathological Protein: Mad Cow, Chronic Wasting, and Other Deadly Prion Diseases" is, perforce, steeped in the science of BSE. (Like some of the researchers he interviewed for his book, Yam stays away from ground beef and sausage.) "I know there is an extremely low risk, probably not even measurable, but you know ... I'm not going to dare myself to eat sausage."
Meanwhile, Marion Nestle, director of public health initiatives at New York University's Steinhardt School of Education and author of "Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism" told me, in an e-mail, that her diet rarely includes bovine delicacies. In her book, she delineates what she feels is the failure of the beef industry to take full responsibility for any role it might play in the increasingly common outbreaks of food-borne illness. "I don't eat brains and these days I don't eat hamburger or [other] beef -- not because I think the risk is so great but because I can't think of a better way to send a message to the beef industry to clean up its act."
David Ropeik comes at the mad cow controversy from another vantage point -- risk analysis. Ropeik is a director of risk communications at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, which was hired by the USDA in 2001 to analyze the hypothetical BSE risk in the United States. The conclusion? That BSE is "extremely unlikely to become established in the United States." Personally, Ropeik believes that, with the incidence of BSE in American cattle only 1 in approximately 100 million, the dangers associated with BSE are minute -- "as close to zero as you can possibly get."
But Ropeik acknowledges that gauging risk can be tricky. "People should recognize first of all that we use our emotions and not just the facts, to make our judgments. And that's valid and fair." But, he believes, "It may lead to unhealthy judgments." An example: If you fear flying, and drive instead, your risk of dying actually increases.
His own attitude toward meat? "I don't eat much meat, mostly as a matter of weight and cholesterol control, but I enjoy a good burger or filet mignon occasionally. In general, like most people, I use a balance of my own personal values as well as what facts I've learned to make personal risk choices."
So paranoiacs -- and confused consumers like myself -- should be heartened to know that the apparent risk that mad cow poses to humans in the U.S., though uncertain, appears tiny so far. Consider: In 1999 alone there were an estimated 1.3 million food-borne illnesses in the United States caused by salmonella bacteria that resulted in some 556 deaths. The sole case of vCJD identified in the United States in 2002 was in a woman who actually spent most of her childhood in the U.K.
Caryl Elzinga, proprietor, with her husband, of Alderspring, a small, grass-fed beef ranch in Tendoy, Idaho, long ago devised her own personal beef-eating calculus. Elzinga believes that ranches like hers are optimal for land, people and animals. But she also believes that "the risk [for BSE and other food-borne illness] is actually very low in the American meat supply, even in cows fed in feedlots." So while she and her family eat the beef they raise at home, they won't turn down traditionally raised beef when at friends' houses. "We say, 'Lord, bless this food' -- and we eat."