UW a pioneer in mad cow-type research

May 3, 2001 Capital Times (Madison, WI) by John Oncken

Not very many years ago we pretty much ate what was put in front of us. Mothers and grandmothers prepared meals from scratch with meat, potatoes and gravy serving as the basics.

The meat probably came from a hog, steer or chicken raised on the farm or sold in a butcher shop that bought animals directly from nearby farmers. The potatoes probably came direct from local farm fields and the milk and dairy products from local dairies.

Until 50 years ago (or thereabouts) many homes didn't have refrigerators, freezers or automatic kitchen ranges. Microwaves are very new in the technology of meal preparation.

A few decades ago farm milk transportation moved to bulk trucks and the traditional milk cans went into antique shops. Irrigation technology took the potatoes off the farms and into the "golden sands" of central Wisconsin. Oscar Mayer in Madison quit slaughtering local meat animals and dairy processors consolidated.

We, the public, are no longer satisfied with seasonal foods (we want everything, every day) and our food supply comes from coast to coast and around the world.

Today we have an endless variety of foods in even the smallest supermarket and we buy pre-frozen, pre-cooked, pre-prepared everything which we expect to taste great, provide nutrients and ensure that we live forever. If it doesn't do all those and more we sue. A case of food poisoning, however minimal, throws us into a panic.

We don't mind killing each other off by the hundreds each year in car and snowmobile accidents, but we are petrified by something called bovine spongiform encephalopathy, often called BSE for short, more often called mad cow disease.

We don't know what it is but we know it must be bad and we want someone to do something about it.

And scientists are trying.

It was 10 years ago when we heard about BSE in England. We heard more in 1992 and 1993 and less since as the number of confirmed cases tailed off.

Then came hoof and mouth disease (HMD), an old malady of cloven hoof animals (cattle, sheep, pigs) and we got even more confused about food safety and science and farmers even though this new-old disease isn't a human health factor.

Where is science in all this? Many folks, including friends, are impatient for instant cures. After all, it's 2001 and we expect things to happen fast and finally.

Science is working fast and furious even in Madison.

Especially in Madison, at a nondescript building, with small over-crowded offices and laboratories on the UW-Madison campus, just across the street from Babcock Hall, "home of the ice cream." I first visited this building in the mid-1990s to talk with Dick Marsh, a researcher who was studying BSE - actually another form of Mad Cow disease found in mink.

Marsh was not very popular in some circles (the animal feed industry especially) because of his suggestion that a popular feed - meat and bone meal - not be fed to cattle because of the possibility that this was how BSE was spread.

Marsh died in 1997 but lived to see his suggestion adopted in the U.S. animal industry.

I recently wondered what happened to the research Marsh pursued at the UW-Madison Department of Animal Health and Biomedical Sciences and was pleased to find that it continues.

Professor Judd Aiken, his associate scientist, Debbie McKenzie (both worked with Marsh) and a staff of four or five continue the BSE research.

Aiken agrees there is much confusion in the public mind about BSE and the confusion increased with the advent of hoof and mouth disease.

He provides some basics. "There are several forms of BSE or mad cow," Aiken begins, "in sheep, mink, cats, and deer. All involve the loss of cells in the brain. All are fatal and drugs or standard sterilization do not provide a cure."

A disease called Creutzfelt-Jacob Disease (CJD) has similar symptoms but is not a human form of mad cow. "This has been around for decades and Wisconsin has four to five cases a year," Aiken says.

He notes there have been 100 deaths in Europe (97 in the UK, two in France and one in Ireland) from what is called variant CJD (vCJD), first discovered in 1995, which hits young people.

"The peak of BSE in the UK was in the early '90s. Science is not sure of how long the incubation period for vCJD is in humans," he says. "All of us have normal prion proteins, we know that, but we don't know why some prions change and become abnormal."

"There have been huge strides made in the past 10 years," says McKenzie. "But there are some big 'black boxes' still to be opened. For instance, what is the role of transition metals that all of us have in our body?"

As for the recent publicity relating to chronic wasting disease (CWD) or mad deer in deer and elk, Aiken says, "That's a terrible name, there is no reason to connect the deer type with the mad cow disease."

"CWD is endemic in parts of Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska and was found in one mule deer in Saskatchewan."

Scientists worldwide are rushing to find answers and solutions to the mysterious BSE or mad cow disease. The University of California at San Francisco, Washington University at St. Louis, Rocky Mountain Labs and UW-Madison are among the leaders.

The UW's Aiken and McKenzie are among the leaders in the research, but things don't happen as fast as we'd like.

They do know that so far 100 people have died because of the vCJD in Europe, a number that is very small when compared to many other diseases. They also know that people fear the unknown and this disease is certainly unknown.

They also remind us that there hasn't been a single case of mad cow found in the U.S. to date. And that the foresight and work done at the laboratory in that plain building on the UW-Madison campus by Dick Marsh and his then compatriots, Aiken and McKenzie, may be one of the reasons.

And their work goes on.

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