New Hampshire health officials are investigating a case of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, sometimes called human mad cow disease, which may have spread to surgical patients through contaminated instrumentation. Mad cow in cattle, called BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy), is believed to be spread by proteins called prions which are essentially indestructible.
Though prions are not technically “alive” because they lack a nucleus, they manage to reproduce and are almost impossible to “kill.” They are not inactivated by cooking, heat, autoclaves, ammonia, bleach, hydrogen peroxide, alcohol, phenol, lye, formaldehyde, or radiation, and they remain in the soil, contaminating it for years. Alcohol actually makes prions more transmissible by binding them to metal like surgical instruments. A scientific paper says that after a prion-contaminated electrode was treated with “benzene, 70 percent ethanol, and formaldehyde vapor,” it still transmitted CJD to two patients.” Needless to say, surgeons and morticians approach CJD cases with trepidation.
There is a “small, but definite, risk that the surgeon or others who handle the brain tissue may become accidentally infected by self-inoculation,” says the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. That means CJD tests are not always conducted.
US beef imports are still limping back after three US cows were diagnosed with BSE in the early 2000’s. Two were born in the US and one was imported from Canada and slaughtered in Washington state. Within 24 hours of the USDA’s first mad-cow announcement late in 2003, Mexico, Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, South Korea, and 90 other countries banned US beef. The only reason the European Union didn’t ban it was it was already banned for its hormone content. Ninety-eight percent of the United States’ $3 billion overseas beef market evaporated almost overnight thanks to mad cow.
With such money at stake and the domestic beef market to consider, it is not surprising that government officials play down mad cow risks. Even a rumor roils beef futures markets. But a quick look at previous government assurances of public safety during mad cow risks is not comforting.
With the US’s first mad cow, found in Washington state, the government said, “By December 27, 2003, FDA had located all potentially infectious product rendered from the BSE-positive cow in Washington State. This product was disposed of in a landfill in accordance with Federal, State and local regulations” Sounds good except that two major newspaper disagreed.
The Los Angeles Times reported that despite “a voluntary recall aimed at recovering all 10,000 pounds of beef slaughtered at the plant the day the Washington state cow was killed, some meat, which could have contained the Washington cow, was sold to restaurants in several Northern California counties.”
The San Francisco Chronicle reported “Alameda and Santa Clara counties have been informed by the state that 11 local restaurants and a market purchased soup bones from the suspect lot, but they have also declined to identify which establishments purchased them.” Eating potential lethal food is none of our business?
Questions lingered about the US’s second and third mad cows, too. The government protected the identities of the ranches that produced them, one in Alabama and one in Texas, and never found the source of the BSE. However both ranches were cleared to produce meat for the public again within a month.
The USDA is pledged to protect both US food consumers and domestic food industries, but when it comes to mad cow, it’s clear who is the priority. Even when Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) has appeared to come in clusters, government officials have called the diseases “sporadic”—meaning they happen by chance and are not from the food. Possible clusters have appeared in New Jersey, Idaho, Indiana, Tennessee and Texas.
Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter. She is the author of Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus).