MAD COW, U.S.A: COULD THE NIGHTMARE HAPPEN HERE?
MAD COW, U.S.A: COULD THE NIGHTMARE HAPPEN HERE?
[originally published Nov. 1998]
FIRST, WHAT EXACTLY IS THE NIGHTMARE IN YOUR SUBTITLE?
Sheldon Rampton (SR): It's a nightmare on two levels. First, it's a nightmare in terms of human and animal health; animals in large numbers have died in
Let's talk about how the two of you got onto this story in the first place, which I think is interesting in and of itself. You've said that the reporting on this subject was absolutely abysmal when you began to investigate it yourselves.
John Stauber (JS): Right, and now it's gone from abysmal to just really bad [laughter]. Our book has already had a major impact on the public debate surrounding this issue. I got involved with this issue through my work fighting alongside farmers and consumers who were opposed to Monsanto's genetically-engineered cow hormone (rBGH), which is injected into cows to force them to produce more milk. The interesting thing is that in order to get more milk out of these cows you have to give them fat and protein supplements, and it was discovered in the early '90s that the cheapest source of fat and protein supplements for dairy cows in
This practice had been banned in
So, in terms of the connection between cow consumption patterns and their effect on the human population, walk us through what precisely happened in
SR: One of the interesting things about this disease is that it's caused by a very unique disease agent. They've never been able to characterize it entirely, but the working theory right now is that it's caused by an infectious protein. This protein can come into existence through something like mutation, so there's no population in the world that is immune from the possibility of developing the disease at low levels. Mutations just "happen." Kind of like "shit happens." What we've got to be concerned about is what causes it to spread. In
So rather than a cow infected with this disease simply dying off, and the disease dying off with that cow, the dead bodies of diseased cows are being consumed by other cows, and then consumed again by humans.
SR: Right. And that could create a closed amplification loop for all kinds of diseases, ranging from anthrax to...you name it. Most diseases, however, get stopped at the border, so to speak, when they go into the rendering plants, because they dump in chemicals and heat it all up, which disinfects the stuff. But one of the unique characteristics, again, of this particular disease agent is that it's very resistant to sterilization procedures, and so it escapes the preventative protective measures that they think they've put in place.
You've emphasized what you call the "completely unique nature" of this disease. Besides its resistance to sterilization processes, what else makes it unique?
JS: One thing that's important to understand about the disease agent is that it's best generically referred to as a TSE, or a Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy. The meaning of "Transmissible" is obvious. "Spongiform" refers to the sponge-like holes that are eaten into the brain as dementia develops. "Encephalopathy" simply refers to the disease of the brain. A TSE is essentially a transmissible Alzheimer's-like disease. Sheldon mentioned that the disease agent, an infectious protein which has been called a "prion" by Nobel Prize winner Stanley Prusiner, is virtually indestructible by heat. It's also impervious to irradiation. And most chemicals don't touch it. So when you take the dead of a species and feed it back to itself, you amplify this disease within that species.
The first time anyone ever saw this in cows was in
We had a very difficult time in the 1980s getting a handle on AIDS, which shares some of these characteristics. AIDS has an incubation period that's measured in years. This disease is much mere invisible than AIDS, and much more insidious. It's spread through contaminated meat, and it has an incubation period we measure in decades. So it's going to take a really different type of thinking and effort to get a handle on this disease. The good news is that it's rather easy to preventâ€”the first step is stopping the practice of feeding a species its own dead. The bad news is that we're continuing to do this in the
In Britain, although industry resisted tooth and nail the attempts of activists first to call this to the attention of the public and then to impose restrictions on these practices, eventually the British government did step in and ban this economy of cannibalism. How did that come about and why is it that nothing of the sort is going on in this country?
SR: If you look at the behavior of the British government, some people would say they actually responded pretty quickly. Once cows were identified with the disease, they acted pretty quickly to ban the practice of animal cannibalism. There are some other practices that they did not ban, such as the use of certain animal parts in food that have been consumed by humans that they should have. They're now regretting that quite a bit. But the fact is that at the time that they banned the practice of feeding rendered cows back to cows, they had only identified about 200 cases of MCD in the entire country. And now some of the scientists who have come under criticism for not taking more drastic measures are saying, "Well, we had no idea this was going to get this far out of hand." This is a disease where, because of the long incubation period, it's very easy to remain in denial, or to remain completely oblivious to the fact that it exists.
The FDA, in its own assessment of what would happen in this country, said that by the time we find the first case in the
JS: And that's one thing that's so disturbing about what the
So while the USDA and FDA are supposed to be protecting US consumers from the sorts of dangers we've been discussing, a central function of theirs is to promote sales for the meat and dairy industries. How does this double function play out?
SR: Well, I always say that when you create an institution which has a built in contradictory mission, what you're designing is corruption, because you can't serve two opposing masters well. And the result is that the USDA's and FDA's efforts to serve as regulators of food safety are compromised by their imperative to serve as marketing agents for the food industry. I think it's pretty obvious, and it's not something that you can blame on an individual out there who's just not doing their job. They are doing their job, but their job is contradictory in nature.
JS: It's structurally built in that this contradiction is going to unravel. For instance, in 1989 the USDA and the FDA put together a top scientific group to examine Mad Cow risks in the
This was based on excellent work by Dr. Richard Marsh at the
You argue in the book that in the coming months we're going to see a trade war between the
SR: Well, you're seeing it start to unfold already. The European Union has so far refused to grant the
So for those reasons, Europeans properly understand that they need to exercise a precautionary principle with regard to food safety. The
Which products are those?
JS: Well, let me step back a little bit to what Sheldon was saying. The most infectious parts of a cow, or a human, or a sheep that has a Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy are the brain, the nervous system, the endocrine system, the spinal cord and nerve tissue. That's where the highest level of infectivity resides. That's exactly the sort of waste material that's deemed unfit for human consumption. And billions and billions of pounds of this waste are shipped off, along with the gristle, skeleton, and other parts, to rendering plants, which are big cooking and evaporating factories. This is where they feed the potentially infectious parts of dead animals back to their own species. Rendering results in an array of products that are really quite mind-boggling, and which we see every day. Gelatin and tallow for instance, are typically derived from rendered products.
Where are gelatin and tallow found?
SR: Gelatin ends up in all kinds of things. It's used as a stiffener in a variety of food products. Gel-caps in your medicines contain gelatin, of course. Jell-O is gelatin. You find it in a lot of different things.
I noticed it the other day as one of the main ingredients in Frosted Mini-Wheats.
SR: You find it in an incredible number of things. Tallow is also used in food production, as well as in the manufacturing of cosmetics. That's what gives skin creams their creamy feel.
JS: Now, gelatin and tallow, although they're products of rendering, are thought to be rather low risk, because they're not supposed to contain a lot of proteinaceous material. But in Britain and in continental Europe, there's a real concern about any risk at all, and they have certain standards that their gelatin and tallow products have to meet as part of this precautionary principle Sheldon was talking about, and to head off the worst-case scenario of an invisible disease with an incubation period of decades.
So the problem here is that the United States doesn't want to institute the strict feeding bans and controls that have now become commonplace in Europe and Britain, and rather than following the European lead, [the US government], the Trade Office, and the meat and rendering industries, along with the pharmaceutical industry, are threatening lawsuits and a trade war against the European Union.
One reason they're getting away with this, of course, is that most people in the
That's what your first book together, Toxic Sludge Is Good for You!, was about: the corporate PR machine that functions like a swat team against critics. How are the two books related? How has the PR industry insinuated itself into this controversy?
SR: Well, I think you could probably regard Mad Cow USA as sort of a case study in the issues that we were talking about in Toxic Sludge Is Good For You! That's what attracted us to it as a story to begin with. In this case, we had an international PR campaign in both
In this country, the spin they're putting on it is, "Okay, so this is a disease you wouldn't want to get, but we don't have it in this country." And every time this issue comes up in the media, you see that spin coming from the USDA and from the beef industry. That's the message they've honed and refined and are driving home. The strategy that John was talking aboutâ€”the food disparagement lawsuitâ€”plays into that, because when someone like Howard Lyman gets out and makes a statement, he's on the hook for anything he says, whereas industry can say pretty much anything they wantâ€”and they haveâ€”about the issue. And what it means is that unless you can absolutely prove every word you say when you criticize the food industry, you can be sued and dragged through years of lawsuits. So even if you win, your life is really messed up.
Are you guys worried about potential repercussions for publishing this book?
SR: Well, we certainly have anticipated the possibility that we could face a lawsuit. It hasn't happened yet, but the book's fairly new. So stay tuned, folks.
This book is obviously alarming. I've already heard people say things like "I'm never eating a burger again. I'm gonna be really careful about what I eat and what I consume." Obviously you don't want to discourage people from changing their diets. It's only natural to react that way, right? At the same time, you make the point in the conclusion of the book that trying to navigate one's way around this disease, this potential epidemic, by picking and choosing what one consumes is ultimately an ineffective approach. What would an effective approach be?
SR: I think that whether someone chooses to be a vegetarian or to eat meat is really a separate issue from what kind of policies we need to have to have safe food and safe lives. It's not just eating meat, of course, because the infectivity of the agent that causes Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies has been found in blood, for example. And there have been cases where people who died of the human version of the disease, Kreutzfeld-Jakob Disease, were found to have donated blood that went into the blood supply. Presumably, this blood was then used in surgery. And I've had people ask me, "Would you get surgery if you knew that one of the donors providing the blood you were going to be transfused with had this disease?" The answer, of course, is that it would depend on what kind of surgery I needed, and how urgent it was.
But the answer is that the solution to human health problems should not be based on consumers having to make decisions based on what might have gone into their food. What we really deserve to have is a food supply that is adequately safeguarded through a precautionary principle that views the worst-case scenario for a disease like Mad Cow as the thing it has to guard against. What we have instead is much less protective of us; it's a system that says, "Well, we don't think this is likely to become a problem, so we're just going to hope and pray that what we believe turns out to be the case." I certainly hope that the disease is not widespread in the
Is that why you're suggesting that just making an individual choice about what you consume isn't really adequate to address the large-scale implications of this epidemic?
SR: Right. If you really care about safety, you ought to be getting on the phone and calling your Representative and Senators. You ought to be writing letters. You ought to be an activist and demand that the government and industry provide safe products, and that they pursue policies and practices that will make the products we consume safe.
Stauber and Rampton are the authors of the book MAD COW USA: COULD THE NIGHTMARE HAPPEN HERE? The book is available as a free download. Stauber and Rampton have also written Toxic Sludge Is Good For You! Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry (1995); Trust Us, We're Experts! How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles with Your Future (2001); and Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq (2003). They put out PR Watch, a muckraking newsletter about the PR/Public Affairs industry.
Danny Postel is a contributing editor to DÃ¦dalus, the journal of the
This interview was originally broadcast on the radio show Free Associations and first appeared in print in LiP magazine,