Bovine bizarreness

In the days following the discovery of mad cow disease in the state of Washington, the U.S. cattle industry has been hard at work trying to calm Americans' fears about tainted meat. Our weak regulatory agencies -- the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- keep telling us that they're doing a good job of protecting us from the ravages of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

But they're wrong. And since most of us don't know where our food really comes from, it's hard to know what's true and what isn't. So here's a little wake-up call, in case you're wondering if you've eaten tainted meat.

I grew up on a dairy farm in Washington. It was a family farm that had about 100 cows and an equal number of young livestock ranging in age from newborn calves to 2-year-old heifers ready to give birth to their first calves and enter the milk herd. About 120 cows was the maximum number for us; we simply couldn't milk more animals in a day. There was only so much time, and we had only so much energy. We used some mechanization, but we still had the ability to give the cows a certain amount of individual care, to help the ones that were sick, and to adjust the milking process for cows who needed special attention.

What made this particularly important is that my parents were career dairy farmers. Mom didn't have a secretarial job in town and Dad didn't hire out to do contract work just so we could make ends meet. My parents made the business work for them from the 1960s through the mid-1980s while they raised a family. By the time they sold the farm, however, there were fewer and fewer families able to make a living on a dairy farm. They were being displaced by large, commercial, highly mechanized, corporate dairy farms.

The cow that tested positive for BSE came from a large corporate farm in Mabton, Wash. The farm has 4,000 animals. Our local newspaper here in Seattle ran a front-page photo of the feed lot on this farm. It was a filthy hole -- a far cry from the loafing sheds and green, productive fields we had on our farm when I was growing up.

To milk 4,000 cows every day, twice a day, a farm like that has to turn the animals into cogs in a machine. There's no individual attention. The animals are hooked up to milking machines with timers on them. After about four minutes, the machines turn off and fall on the floor, and that's it. Forget the fact that, depending on the animal, cows need anywhere from two minutes to 15 minutes to give all their milk. If a cow finishes in two minutes, the machine stays on and the animal suffers -- or she kicks it off, which gets her added to the list of animals headed for the slaughterhouse. If a cow needs more time, forget it; she suffers, gives less milk, underperforms and goes on the list of animals headed for the slaughterhouse.

Back in the 1980s, I remember my parents' shock after reading that, on average, cows live only two years on commercial, corporate farms. We were appalled at the thought that big farms were sending their young 4-year-old cows to the butcher. In our minds, that was a failure. Cows don't even reach their full growth until they're 5 years old, when they hit their prime and give the most milk. The waste is simply unimaginable. And we understood that cows can get sick and have a bad year, and so we gave our animals a second chance. On our farm, cows often lived 10 or 15 years and, in the case of two or three really stubborn ones, they sometimes lived nearly 20 years.

Now, it takes about five to seven years for symptoms of BSE to appear in an infected cow. If, however, most corporate dairy farms are sending their abused, used-up, broken-down cows off to the slaughterhouse at younger and younger ages -- before they reach the key 5-year-old mark -- then no amount of testing is going to make the meat supply safe. A ban on butchering downer cows (animals that stagger, can't walk, or exhibit other signs of BSE) will make no difference, either. And holding sick animals in quarantine while they're being tested won't work, not unless we want to quarantine and test all young cattle sent to slaughter or ban all animals younger than 7 years old.

"Experts" like to remind us that there have been no confirmed cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (the human form of spongiform encephalopathy) in the United States. That's technically true, but in practice, it's a lie. Every year, 300 new cases of CJD are diagnosed in the U.S. It's a diagnosis of elimination. After a person comes down with the symptoms, he or she is tested for a variety of neurological disorders. When those come up negative and the disease begins to progress rapidly, the diagnosis becomes CJD. None of these cases are ever confirmed, because the only way to test for it is by removing brain tissue and examining it under a microscope after the patient has already died. Autopsies are never performed for two simple reasons: it's expensive to do, and the fear of catching the disease from infected brain tissue -- even in the sterile, controlled environment of a hospital or laboratory -- is too great to risk cutting open the brain case of a person who's already dead.

And we're supposed to rest easy with assurances that the brain and spinal cord of the Mabton cow were "ripped" out of the cow's carcass in the slaughterhouse by an inefficient machine that often doesn't recover all the neurological tissue. The machine routinely leaves behind spinal cord tissue to be ground into hamburger, sausage and other products for human consumption, and the USDA admits that to be the case. One-third of the hamburger, lunch meat, sausage and processed ground meat made after the brain and spinal cord have been mechanically removed from carcasses contains spinal cord tissue in it.

But "muscle cuts" are supposed to be safe, they tell us. Steaks and roasts are supposedly free of any traces of BSE. Yet a man in Britain recently died from CJD that he contracted from a blood transfusion. Tell me, then, if it's in the British human blood supply, why wouldn't it be in the blood of infected cattle, and therefore in "muscle cuts" like steaks and roasts?

Cooking, which kills E coli, doesn't do a damn thing for BSE. It's not a bacteria or virus; it's a prion, a very simple, extremely durable protein that can't be killed by freezing or extreme heat. Researchers have put prions into autoclaves to try and kill them, but they survived. So the slaughterhouse process of rendering down miscellaneous parts of the cow -- a process that involves extreme heat -- isn't enough to kill prions. When the USDA tells us that the brain and spinal cord of the Mabton cow were rendered down for use in cosmetics or feed for pigs, chickens and pets, they're just not telling us that the prions may still enter the human food chain -- a little further down the line than we expected.

We're supposed to believe that pigs don't get mad cow disease. But pigs, particularly pigs on enormous corporate hog farms, have an even shorter life span than cows do.

And then there are chickens. Here's a nightmare for you, particularly for any vegetarians and vegans reading this article. Experts say that chickens' digestive tracts can't absorb prions, and the prions pass right through into their manure. But organic farms often use fertilizer made with chicken manure, and many organic packaged fertilizers for home gardens have chicken manure in them. Remember that the next time you let your toddler play in the garden, or the next time you juice a carrot without scrubbing it first.

The experts will tell you I'm being overly alarmist, that I'm talking about unproven theories. They like to point to what they know: That cows can only get BSE from eating feed with infected cattle tissue in it. U.S. and Canadian companies were banned from that practice way back in 1997, so everything's just fine now. Downer cows are tested at the slaughterhouse, meat can be recalled, the safeguards are all in place.

Don't bet on it. First of all, BSE emerged in the British cattle population in the 1980s. The U.S. cattle industry resisted any ban on putting cattle parts into cattle feed for well over a decade, which has raised the risk of BSE infection here in the U.S. The Mabton cow, it now turns out, was 6 years old -- born just before the ban went into place in 1997.

Post-1997, the USDA was put in charge of inspecting feed mills to make sure they comply with the ban, but its enforcement powers have been gutted by successive federal budget cuts and by employing people with close ties to the very agribusiness companies they're supposed to regulate. For example, one feed mill here in Washington -- the one my parents used 20 years ago -- has been cited for multiple safety violations by the USDA, from 1989 through 2002. Each time, the company has received a slap on the wrist for violations that range from a lack of proper paperwork to allowing prohibited animal parts into cattle feed. And it's not alone. Our local Friends of the Earth chapter says that as many as a dozen other feed mills here in Washington have been caught violating safety laws, but the USDA is not releasing any details about what those violations are.

Meanwhile, the Mabton cow's carcass passed through the system, was processed for food, sent to distributors and grocery stores, and was almost certainly cooked and eaten before the results of its BSE tests were completed and announced to the public. That's how our mechanized, inhuman, corporate nonregulated food supply system works.

It doesn't have to work that way. The most obvious way to make our food supply safer would be to support family farms over corporate farms and to move away from reliance on processed food. But our government provides subsidies that benefit corporate farms more than family farms. And so BSE, listeria, and killer E coli are just the price we pay so we can have 99-cent hamburgers at the local fast-food joint and an overabundance of frozen TV dinners.

We have common cause with farmers in the Third World who protest against U.S. agricultural subsidies. They're fighting against the enormous quantities of cheap food that our corporate farmers dump on their markets, driving their local farmers out of business. Meanwhile, for us, it's a food quality issue: If we could promote family farms and more safety oversight, we would have less food on the domestic market and it would be more expensive, but the quality would be better. Less food on our domestic market would mean less cheap food exported to Third World nations, so their own farmers could stay in business.

But neither Democrats nor Republicans seem to understand this basic concept, or even care about the problem. Both parties have supported bills in Congress that throw money into the pockets of corporate agribusiness at the expense of small family farms. In the race to win over Midwest farming states, candidates from both parties are falling over each other to offer more subsidies, gut more regulations and undermine the safety of the food supply.

It's time for a change -- a big change, not a little bit of tinkering here and there. A ban on slaughtering downer cows is only a first step. We need to ban subsidies to corporate agribusiness. We need initiatives that support family farms, that provide debt relief to overtaxed small farmers. We need to ban the kind of "technology" that small farmers can't afford but corporate farms use regularly to increase their output -- i.e., bovine growth hormone, cloning and genetically modified organisms. We need the kind of price supports that keep small farms in business, but don't encourage large corporate farms to add more and more capacity out of greed and the need to please their shareholders.

Those changes won't come soon, but they must come eventually. In the meantime, be careful what you eat. Eat local, eat organic, buy from your neighborhood farmer's market. It's more expensive, yes, but you get what you pay for ... and you don't want to be paying for BSE.

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