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Wall Street Predicts Mad Cow Crisis Will Hit USA

Wall Street Predicts Mad Cow Crisis Will Hit USA

August 29, 2001
Wall Street Journal--Editorial Page

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Moo Over, Mad Cow Cometh

By HOLMAN W. JENKINS JR.

"Not a single case of mad cow" has been the proud mantra of the U.S. beef
industry since the disease was discovered in Britain 15 years ago.

Not finding a case, though, has been largely a function of not looking
especially hard. Since last fall, events have forced European countries to
start examining every slaughtered cow over a certain age, a big change from
checking for disease only if a wobbly beast ended up on the evening news. It
turns out mad cow gets around.

The French, Germans and Swiss have found 100-plus cases so far. Italy just
discovered its 23rd, Denmark its second, and Sweden and Greece their first.
Two have been found in the Czech Republic. Soon there may be a urine test
for the distorted proteins, or "prions," thought to cause the disease. That
would mean investigators wouldn't have to rely on dissecting cow brains for
late-stage evidence of the slow-acting disease (often called BSE). Testing
would become easy and cheap for animals that aren't ready for slaughter.

Looking is often finding, so this would seem to bode a consumer panic and
economic disaster if mad cow is as widely spread as many experts believe.
The U.S. cattle industry long ago convinced itself that a single case would
mean curtains for its $3.6 billion in annual beef exports, not to mention a
bruising domestic whack as consumers defect to chicken, pork or-horrors-soy
burgers.

But, lo, the pessimists overlook a phenomenon known as desensitization or
the dog-bites-man effect. In Germany beef consumption dropped 40% when the
first case was announced, but bounced back 20% by the 101st.

Slowly, painfully, the rest of the world is starting to calm down and accept
mad cow as part of reality. Isn't it time we caught up?

The British experience has tended to color all thinking about the disease,
but Britain increasingly appears to be sui generis. If the conventional
account of mad cow's rise and spread is right, we should be seeing rising
numbers of human victims in Britain and beyond. We aren't.

Hundreds of tons of British animal feed, the presumed agent of infection,
were exported to 80 countries until 1996, including 12 tons to the U.S.
Given its long latency period, mad cow should have insinuated itself in the
cattle food chain under the standard scenario before anybody noticed.
Americans alone consume 45 million pounds a year of "mechanically recovered
meat," which until recently would typically have contained a helping of
brain and spinal tissues that are considered infectious agents.

Since the beginning, though, some experts have emphasized a quirkiness of
the British, namely their affection for sheep, which looms larger in light
of recent discoveries.

In a territory the size of Oregon, British herders keep 42 million sheep and
10 million cows, a ratio not commonly found in industrial countries. The
U.S., for example, keeps seven million sheep and 100 million cows.
Importantly, the British also slaughter their sheep five times faster, and
eat 12 times as much lamb and mutton per capita.

As befits a small, densely developed country with a great many carcasses to
dispose of, the British also have leaned heavily on protein recycling.
Greeks raise and eat a great deal of mutton, but most of their beef is
imported from France. The French eat as much lamb as the Brits, but
two-thirds is imported. Only Britain has bolted its sheep and beef
industries firmly together, feeding each on the remains of the other.

The final key may be the unexpected laboratory finding that sheep can get
mad cow disease by eating tiny amounts of BSE-tainted material. That sent
investigators digging back through the brains of 3,000 sheep believed to
have died of scrapie, a common illness from which mad cow is theorized to
have descended. These revisitations have yielded strong indications that
some of the sheep actually died of BSE.

Most intriguing of all, infectious material was found in the spleens of
BSE-infected sheep, something not found in BSE cows. Scrapie in sheep is
known to make its way into many organs.

This raises the possibility of a more complicated pas de deux between the
two species. Mad cow may have originated, as the standard theory suggests,
from age-old scrapie after British cows fed on infected sheep. But the new
possibility is that the BSE variant then passed back into sheep feeding on
infected cows, and then to humans who ate mutton, not beef.

Certainly some such scenario is needed to explain the eccentric cycling up
of a British epidemic even as nothing similar has befallen other
BSE-infected countries. Mad cow the disease may turn out to have a spotty
presence almost everywhere. Mad cow the epidemic, along with its small
accompanying retinue of human illness cases, may be a freak product of
British husbandry.

The British government has yet to advance an opinion on whether humans can
catch mad cow from eating lamb, let alone whether sheep were responsible for
transmitting a cow-incubated BSE into the human food chain. But then the
idea that humans catch mad cow from eating beef is purely hypothetical too
(though often reported as fact).

At this point, it's probably more comforting than alarming that science
knows much less about mad cow than most of the public suspects. Steps taken
so far have been based on worst-case scenarios and a political demand to be
seen "doing something" rather than well-informed estimates of risk. The
British Medical Journal recently summed up the current state of ignorance:
"There is but one incontestable fact, that bovine spongiform encephalopathy
is the cause of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease."

That's an important and interesting fact, but what does it mean? The human
version of mad cow is a horrible disease, but no more horrible than
"sporadic" CJD, which kills several thousand people a year and has been
recognized since 1920. As "sporadic" implies, scientists have no idea how
the disease picks its victims. For all we know CJD has been passing between
humans and animals for millennia.

Washington and the cattle lobby have spent a decade praying mad cow doesn't
show up here, despite knowing it must sooner or later. Though 36 million
head are slaughtered a year, the Agriculture Department has examined all of
12,000 brains since 1990. The time has come to gear up a real hunt for our
first case, if only to get it over with.

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