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Where's the Beef Come From?

April 22, 2001 San Francisco Chronicle Magazine by Patricia Unterman

During a trip to France in January, "MAD COW" was plastered across the front page of every newspaper, and almost daily I was faced with the dilemma of whether or not to eat beef. Dining prodigiously during a full-blown food scare became something of a torture. My inclination was to stay away from beef entirely, but what about veal? What about sausages? What about dairy products - butter, cheese and cream? A girl's got to eat, especially in the country that invented cuisine.

As I walked out the door in San Francisco, the last thing my usually skeptical, free-thinking husband said to me was "Stay away from beef." But of course the first day out I found myself at Le Passage - a hip, smoky wine bar hidden away in an alley near the Bastille, eating tete de veau - a mosaic of calf's tongue, cheek and jowl held together, terrine-style, by a gummy, clear, natural gelatin. The slices were draped over a pile of sliced potatoes and hard-boiled egg, all liberally blanketed in a mustardy, herby, sauce gribiche. How well the tete went with the unusual little red burgundy from Saint Amour! Next to me a young man tucked into a thick hunk of beef, and at the owners' table two others ate their own plates of tete de veau with abandon.

I asked our loquacious young waiter what he thought about eating veal. "It's absolutely no problem," he said. "Only older animals get the disease. It's safe. Francois Mitterrand always eats tete de veau here. It's his favorite dish. Besides, you only have to worry about the brains, and this is head." He illustrated by pointing to his brain. Oy. (Actually, there isn't any brain in tete de veau, despite its name.)

In fact, no one in Le Passage seemed concerned about contracting variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, vCJD, the human form of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a disease that leads to a rather gruesome death in both ruminants and people.

The outbreak began in Britain around 1986, about six years after feed manufacturers changed their method of rendering unusable animal carcasses and parts into a high protein meal. This meal was fed to cows as a high protein dietary supplement. Cows started falling down, twitching, and aimlessly butting their heads, victims of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, BSE. Asymptomatic infected cows were butchered and ended up on British supermarket shelves. They were also ground up and fed to other cows as meal. By last December, 87 deaths from vCJD had been reported in Great Britain and more than 700,000 cattle had been slaughtered and carefully disposed of by incineration or burial. The Brits turned away from beef and the European Economic Community banned the export of British beef to the continent. The British beef industry was ruined.

In 1988 the British stopped manufacturing bone meal from ruminants to feed other ruminants, but the infected feed made its way into Europe. Though the French and Germans adamantly insisted that their herds were healthy, beef from a hundred BSE-infected French cows ended up in French supermarkets at the end of last year. Two French people died from variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and by mid-February 2001, France was disposing of 10,000 cattle a week. BSE was found in herds in Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium and Portugal. The crisis swept through Europe and consumers lost faith in the safety of their food.

I, too, came home shaken. I had eaten calf twice (once slathered in morels in a charming old-fashioned restaurant by the Eiffel Tower called Les Fontaines de Mars, which specialized in veal; the other, as the tete de veau), and beef one time, at lunch in Marseille's best food shop, Bataille, where beef rolls stuffed with pork forcemeat in a provenal tomato sauce were served to everyone at my table. Everyone except one other American ate the dish with relish. The locals were sure that a shop as prestigious as Bataille would know where and how their beef had been raised. But how could they know just which French farmers bought the cheap animal meal imported from Britain? And how would the farmer know if it was bad?

I was feeling a little queasy. Would there be an outbreak in the United States? What about my kid, who eats fast-food hamburgers? Was it all right to eat naturally raised beef like

Niman? Knowing the provenance of your food became a very important consideration - not just as a matter of ecological belief or diet, but as an immediate life-and-death issue.

Sure enough just as I got home at the end of January, the U.S. press started picking up on the story, especially after a thousand cattle in Texas were quarantined when Purina Mills revealed that they may have mixed cow meat and bone meal into a feed supplement that was put on a wrong truck. No cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, however, have ever been reported in American cattle. (The disease has been reported in mink fed the meat of American "downer cows," cows that cannot get up. Veterinarians know that spongiform encephalopathies do exist in America, but it has never been reported.)

Though the practice of using animals as feed continues to be widespread in the United States, most of it goes to chickens and pigs, not ruminants (cud-chewing animals). According to Bill Niman, a grower and processor of "natural" beef fed only vegetable matter, American ranchers generally fatten up their animals with soybeans or cottonseed. (Niman uses soy beans, sunflower meal or distillers' dried grains, not cottonseed, because it comes from a non-food crop that has been heavily sprayed.) America has the climate to grow soybeans. Europe doesn't, so they depend on cheap feed made from animals.

To the consumer, the idea of grinding up unused animal parts for feed sounds repulsive, but the practice is economical and sustainable. Just as farmers and gardeners recycle organic garbage as compost, unused parts of animals are recycled as edible protein. Still, the idea of feeding cud-chewing herbivores meat - from their own species yet - does seem creepy, and in fact has been banned in the United States since 1997.

Mad cow disease actually came from British sheep infected with scrapie, a neurological disease that has been identified in sheep for 250 years. Scrapie-infected sheep contaminated feed that went to cows and the chain reaction was ignited. The cause of all transmissible spongiform encephalopathies like scrapie, mad cow disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is neither a virus nor bacteria, but a misfolded protein, called a prion - a hard-to-destroy chemical structure that acts as a template for newly formed protein. These prions reside in the brain and spinal cord and require long exposure to extremely hot temperatures to be destroyed. In 1979 British feed mills switched their rendering protocol from batches to a continuous process, and prions, probably from the brain matter of scrapie-infected sheep, got through. Cows ate the meal and the disease jumped species. Where one or two sheep in a flock might have scrapie, many cows in a herd came down with mad cow disease. These infected beef in turn were insufficiently rendered and of course more people eat beef than lamb, making it even scarier when the disease jumped species to humans. What epidemiologists term the "host range" was expanded.

Prions were first identified by a team headed by UCSF doctor Stanley Prusiner, who won a Nobel Prize for the discovery. I talked to Dr. Michael Baldwin, a senior chemistry professor at UCSF, who works with Prusiner and happens to be a Brit. The first question I asked him was whether he thought it was safe to eat beef.

He assured me that eating beef muscle - like steak or roasts - of any cow was safe [Not according to the World Health Organization--BSE coordinator]. Brains or innards of infected animals are the real problem. They could contaminate processed beef products like hot dogs, sausages, canned-beef stews or canned soups. Baldwin said he did eat bangers (sausages), pasties (pies fill with ground meat), the kind of ground-up beef product that just might carry some tainted matter. Since the incubation period for BSE and vCJD is long - in humans up to 40 or more years - he can't be sure that he won't get vCJD. But Baldwin didn't sound worried. The risk of contracting CJD is very tiny, he told me, much smaller than the risk from smoking, car accidents, cancer, heart disease or even old age. "Actually, we don't know what will happen," he said. "The number of CJD deaths over the past six years might only be the front edge of the curve. I'm part of a test."

So mad cow disease is a scare, not yet an epidemic, at least among humans, and there is a way to prevent it with proper rendering procedures in feed mills. But personally, I've decided to be even more careful and inquisitive about the food I eat and serve to others. If prions can jump from sheep to cows to humans, what's to prevent them from jumping to pigs and chickens, which are regularly fed animal meal? (There's never been a reported case of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy in either [No naturally occuring cases have been reported (perhaps because how early in their lives they're slaughtered), but pigs and chickens are experimentally susceptible to BSE--BSE coordinator].)

I'm going to buy only grain-fed chickens and pork for home and restaurant - and grass-fed beef. I told my teenager he should stay away from fast-food hamburgers - I've always told him that - but I am not giving up tacos in the Mission and dim sum in Chinatown, the ingredients in which I cannot trace. I suppose I could become a vegetarian, but why prolong my life to do that? I'm just going to stay away from brains and only eat my beloved calf's liver, sweetbreads and tripe from animals I know.


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