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2000s Archive

Is Eating Meat Safe?

Originally Published June 2001
Mad cow disease has made headlines around the world, but how much do you need to worry? Trish Hall assesses the risk.

Should this be the summer of grilled tofu, rather than grilled steak? Could we have mad cow disease, otherwise known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, in this country? So far, the U.S. government has tested about 12,200 cattle (mostly “downers,” or nonambulatory animals), and none have shown signs of the disease, a rare, degenerative, and invariably fatal brain disorder that is most likely transmittable to humans. But according to Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, the number of cows tested is too low. “If you don’t look, you’re not going to find it,” he says. “European countries are testing far more aggressively.” And there are concerns that current government regulations have substantial loopholes that would make it possible for the disease to spread should it take hold.

In the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe, the disease seems to have been conveyed by turning cows, herbivores by nature, into carnivores and cannibals. For the past few decades, here as well as overseas, cows have been given feed that includes the rendered remains of other mammals, such as sheep (which can develop scrapie, a disease similar to BSE), pigs, chickens, and other cows. The reason is primarily economic—this feed is a cheap source of protein. Although U.S. cows haven’t been fed cow or sheep parts for four years, they can still be given feed containing cow’s blood as well as other animal parts. Feed made from dead cows, deer, and sheep is still given to chicken and pigs, which can then be rendered and fed in turn to cows.

The feed system has made the food chain enormously complex, and Jean Halloran, director of the Consumer Policy Institute (a branch of Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports), is one of many skeptics who worry that it will be impossible to keep feed supplies for different animals totally separate. The FDA provided some basis for this concern when it said in January that nearly a quarter of the 180 companies it had surveyed that render animals for feed were failing to label properly. Plus they did not have a system in place to ensure that feed meant for specific animals was not being mixed with feed for other animals.

There is no way to quantify the current risk because the scientific uncertainty surrounding the disease is still significant. Certainly compared to the risk entailed in eating a great deal of fat or smoking cigarettes, the risk of contracting new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (most likely the human version of BSE) seems low. “We have 76 million cases of food poisoning each year, resulting in 300,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths,” says Richard T. Johnson, professor of neurology and microbiology at Johns Hopkins University, “and not one case of mad cow disease.”

So is a widespread outbreak of BSE in the U.S. a remote possibility or a genuine threat to public health? None of the experts really know for sure. Only one thing is totally clear. Turning cows into cannibals is unnecessary and probably unsafe. That’s the real madness of the current crisis.

Guidelines For Buying Meat

Beef from an infected cow is not necessarily dangerous. Scientists have found no trace of BSE contamination in muscle tissue—where most cuts come from—or in milk. Brain tissue is the most hazardous, because the disease affects the central nervous system, which is concentrated there. The spinal cord is also capable of passing the infection. If there is BSE here, it would be smart to avoid hot dogs and beef sausage, too, because they are made from meat that is mechanically removed from the bone and thus likely to contain pieces of nerve tissue. Hamburger is safest if you ask the butcher to grind it from a piece of meat, so no other substance ends up in your ground beef. Extremely cautious eaters might want to choose cuts produced according to organic principles, because those animals do not consume feed made from other animals.

Fish and chicken appear to be safe. It seems that only mammals can develop BSE or one of the related diseases.

Pigs have not been diagnosed with the disease, although it’s been transmitted to them in the laboratory by injection.

Some sheep in this country have scrapie, but there’s no evidence that eating meat from a sheep with scrapie causes what is believed to be the human version of BSE. Still, if you are very cautious, it would make sense to treat lamb as you treat beef.

Related chronic wasting disease has been found in wild venison (in Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska). Farmed elk have developed a similar disease. Again, it might be prudent to treat these meats as you would beef and lamb.