Moo Over, Mad Cow Cometh

Moo Over, Mad Cow Cometh

August 29, 2001 Wall Street Journal 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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