Mad-Cow Health Hysteria

Published December 30, 2003

Investigators have tentatively traced the first U.S. case of mad-cow disease to Canada, but officials there say the link is premature. Canadian Agriculture Minister Robert Speller said if the Americans stick to science in their investigation, the new case should not prolong the newly imposed Canadian trade ban on U.S. beef. DNA tests are being conducted to trace the animal’s heritage and results may not be known for a week.

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) chief veterinarian Ron DeHaven said the infected Holstein cow in Washington State was probably from a herd of 74 imported into Idaho from Alberta, Canada in August 2001. The cow appears to have been born several months before the U.S. and Canada banned the use of animal products in the feed supply in August 1997. The news set off a round of junk science and predictable panic.

In May 2003, an isolated case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in North America was found in Alberta. The U.S. government promptly banned imports of Canadian beef and cattle, and investors dumped the stock of beef-related companies, for a loss of roughly $1.5 billion in market value. Even today, the futures market for cattle raised in the U.S. has tumbled from $87 per hundredweight in December 2003 to under $70 by June 2004.

Ron Wooddisse, president of the Ontario Cattlemen’s Association, says it doesn’t matter where the animal came from. “Just word of the case could make the industry unravel,” he warned. Ontario’s twenty-one thousand cattlemen produce about $1 billion worth of beef annually. In the U.S., production of beef will be between $27-30 billion in 2003, with 10 percent exported to other nations.

Over the Top

While the news media has a duty to report public health threats and other concerns, it also has a responsibility to avoid hyping an issue out of proportion when there is little or no scientific evidence to support its importance. In this instance, the public health threat is small … so what might explain the current mad-cow feeding frenzy? Two possibilities come to mind:

1. It’s been a slow news week, and the media needs something to pump up newspaper sales and television news ratings.

2. The mad-cow discovery presents an opportunity to criticize the Bush administration for weak agriculture policies just before the Iowa caucuses.

Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry proposes dramatically expanding livestock monitoring while Howard Dean, also campaigning in Iowa, a major beef-producing state, said, “This administration has not taken such dangers seriously.” According to Missouri’s Dick Gephardt, “We need a President who is committed to the right of American consumers to know where their meat is coming from and not to the huge special interests that are fighting to keep safety regulations out of our food supply.”

Does anyone else find it curious these fellows are suddenly so interested in the safety of our meat supply from Canada, but willing to turn a blind eye to the safety of importing prescription drugs from Canada?

Let’s Get Real

The USDA’s DeHaven said it is highly unlikely mad-cow disease can be passed to calves from an infected host. He also said there is no reason to question the safety of the U.S. meat supply.

The infectious particle of protein causing mad-cow disease is not found in muscle tissue, the source of roasts, steaks, and other prime beef cuts. The protein is found only in central nervous system tissues like the brain and spinal cord. “Even with the finding of this single Holstein cow, the U.S. remains at very low risk,” DeHaven said, because of the 1997 ban on feed that includes animal parts like brains and spinal cords. The risk to human health, according to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, is “extremely low.”

The minuscule risk to human health appears to matter little to the scare-mongers. You simply can’t have good health hysteria, like the 1989 Alar and apples scare, without media hype. That scare, too, turned out to be unfounded–after the media frenzy had already done damage.

The mad-cow link to human health is unproven, notes Steven Milloy, host of and adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. In May 2003, Milloy wrote in reaction to the single case of BSE in Canada, “There’s no question that bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly called mad-cow, is a highly infectious, neurological disease in cattle.

“But,” continued Milloy, “the notion that people can contract a human form of the disease by eating beef from infected cows is more bun than burger. Despite its gaping holes, the infected beef theory has mutated into orthodoxy among many in the medical and public health community that few have been brave enough to challenge.”

Conrad F. Meier is managing editor of Health Care News. His email address is [email protected].