The Unthinkable: Alzheimers Caused by Meat?

April 12, 2001 by Jeffrey Nelson

Spongiform (or [sponge-like] brain-wasting) diseases are generally divided into two classes: those which arise from eating infected tissue from animals (including humans), and those which are thought to be "spontaneous" or "of unknown origin."

The type which come from eating or handling infected tissue include Kuru, a disease found in a South Pacific cannibal population traced to handling brain material of their deceased relatives, bovine spongiform encelphalopathy (BSE, or mad cow disease), which comes from eating infected cow meat, and transmissible mink encephalopathy (TME), which arises from mink being fed "downer" cows in the U.S.

In humans, mad cow disease causes a brain-wasting disease called New Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, or nvCJD. A closely related brain-wasting disease called Sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, or sCJD, kills about 300 people a year in the U.S. The full numbers of CJD victims aren't actually known because CJD is not a reportable disease like syphilis. The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) only surveys "death certificate" CJD, meaning if an end-stage CJD victim catches pneumonia and dies, this doesn't get tracked as a CJD case by the CDC, but is counted as a "pneumonia" death.

In addition, CJD victims have been known to be misdiagnosed as Alzheimer's patients, unless family members insist on an autopsy and examination of brain tissues.

About 15% of CJD is thought to be a hereditary disease, a "bad gene" which mutates, an autosomal dominant prion gene mutation, causing the disease to spontaneously appear and turn the victim's brain to mush. But researchers in France were dealt a huge surprise in a recent test when mice in a control group contracted CJD from a lamb infected with scrapie. Previously, the brain wasting disease scrapie was not thought to be transmissible in this way, and more experiments are now underway, with Germany tracking it's human CJD cases to try to determine if infected lamb may have been a common denominator in some cases there.

We already know that studies show dementia and Alzheimer's disease are both found at significantly lower rates in vegetarian populations.


[S]houldn't we be examining U.S. cows to see if they contain prions [...]?

The government doesn't think so. According to Linda Detwiler who heads the USDA's BSE surveillance unit, there is no line item for BSE surveillance in the USDA budget, which means they must try to carry out that activity at the expense of other programs for animal health (tuberculosis, brucellosis, avian influenza, etc.).

The current administration has proposed funding research into mad cow disease -- a first -- and President Bush has allocated five million dollars for that purpose.

But five million dollars is not what a country spends which is seriously examining this problem.

Just one lab -- the lab of Stanley Prusiner, who did the research which led to the discovery of infective prions -- has an annual budget of $7 million. The small country of Austria already spends an estimated $18 million annually on its own mad cow surveillance program, and has been successful to date in demonstrating to it's people that it's cows are free of infectious prions. (And unlike the U.S., which simply verbally assures its public that "there is no BSE here," the Austrians back it up with scientific action. This stands in stark contrast to the U.S.' s "all talk and no action" stance.)

Over the past three years Congress has provided $25 billion in special assistance to compensate farmers for falling commodity prices and crop losses caused by weather, including over a billion dollars to bail out the hog and beef industries. To keep prices up, the government makes huge meat purchases and donates it to the school lunch program.

In addition, the USDA currently has a $17.9 billion discretionary fund to handle issues it deems important as they arise, and the White House has authorized a total of $32.1 million to protect against foot and mouth disease.

Isn't it time the U.S. government takes potential health threats to humans as seriously as it does the potential financial impact to meat producers?

Home | News | Organics | GE Food | Health | Environment | Food Safety | Fair Trade | Peace | Farm Issues | Politics
Español | Campaigns | Buying Guide | Press | Search | Donate | About Us | Contact Us

Organic Consumers Association - 6771 South Silver Hill Drive, Finland MN 55603
E-mail: Staff · Activist or Media Inquiries: 218-226-4164 · Fax: 218-353-7652
Please support our work. Send a tax-deductible donation to the OCA

Fair Use Notice: The material on this site is provided for educational and informational purposes. It may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. It is being made available in an effort to advance the understanding of scientific, environmental, economic, social justice and human rights issues etc. It is believed that this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have an interest in using the included information for research and educational purposes. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. The information on this site does not constitute legal or technical advice.