|September 26, 2002
Volume 33 Number 3
|A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico|
Life in the Fast-Food Lane
CAPE forum on mad cow disease produces lively debate on health and beef industry concerns
Incoming freshmen who will be perusing, between bites of cheeseburger, this year's Book in Common should have no trouble brainstorming paper topics. Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser has already sparked testy discussion both on and off the rostrum, most recently during a lecture by vegan activist and Boston-based health practitioner Michael Greger, M.D. Appearing Sept. 3 before a large and largely pro-agriculture audience in Harlen Adams Theatre, Greger delivered his theatrically scripted "Mad Cow Disease: The Plague of the 21st Century?" as one of the ongoing events related to the Book in Common. Responding to Greger were David Daley, coordinator of California State University, Chico's Agriscience Program, and John Maas, professor and food safety researcher from the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine.
"You cannot find what you're not looking hard enough for," said Greger, who contended, as does Schlosser in his book, that the beef industry downplayed the potential human health hazards of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease. That the disease apparently could jump from species to species was acknowledged in 1996, after 10 British teenagers were diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), mad cow's human variant, and suffered fatal brain damage as a result. The disease had been tentatively linked to infected beef -- that is, to cattle that had eaten feed containing the remains of other cattle infected with BSE. "It's kind of like unsafe sex," explained Greger. "You're not just eating that cow, but every cow that that cow ate."
When these lethal links appeared in the food chain, he contended, the U.S. beef industry and the U.S. Department of Agriculture were more concerned about damage control than adequately assessing the potential for either BSE or CJD infection. Meanwhile, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration declared it would establish new rules prohibiting certain animal proteins in cattle feed. Those restrictions, described by the FDA as "mammalian-to-ruminant, with exceptions" took effect in 1997, although not every segment of the beef industry paid attention to them, according to Schlosser: "More than one-quarter of the firms handling prohibited feed neglected to add a label warning that it should never be given to cattle. In Colorado, more than one-quarter of the cattle-feed producers had somehow never heard about the new rules." However, the clock kept ticking, even if the industry stalled, said Greger. Because the disease often takes decades to incubate, he believes a CJD outbreak of epidemic proportions is possible.
"We need to close up the loopholes," he said, referring to the "with exceptions" aspect of the FDA restrictions, "and we need to make CJD a reportable illness." Greger also recommended that research on reliable live-animal tests be accelerated (thus far, mad cow disease can be diagnosed only after autopsies) and that more cattle should be tested for the disease in the United States. This year, 5,000 cows were tested in this country, compared to Europe's seven million.
"If you want to be sure you're safe," he concluded, "do not eat beef or products containing beef proteins."
In response, David Daley emphasized that beef producers haven't been complacent, and that, in fact, they've done the most toward "putting a human face on agriculture."
Daley, whose family has been in the cattle business since 1850, paced the stage during his 10-minute rebuttal. "I'm offended as a producer as well as an academic," he told Greger. "The people trying to effect change in this industry are the producers. After all, we have the most to lose." He cited a colleague in Colorado, a veterinarian and consultant for 37 feedlots, who said that all were in compliance with the new FDA rules.
Schlosser noted in his book that last year McDonald's Corporation required that its beef suppliers show documentation that the rules are being followed. Other agribusinesses have followed suit.
"We all want to change these practices for the good of animals," said Daley. "It's not an oxymoron to like animals and eat them."
Maas stressed the importance of approaching the subject with logic, common sense, and healthy skepticism. "We may never know the source of the initiating prion," he said, referring to the disease-causing agent, something like a bacteria or virus, but protein based. "We can all agree that the action taken so far has been not enough, soon enough. But for any person or group to state or imply that the veterinary community isn't looking for BSE is to mistake the facts." To date, no cases of BSE or CJD have been diagnosed in the United States.
The lecture was sponsored by the Center for Applied and Professional Ethics and the College of Humanities and Fine Arts.
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