Dec. 23 was a dark day for cattle farmers all over the United States. A single Holstein cow from Canada via Washington was diagnosed with mad cow disease. The dreaded ailment, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (or BSE), had arrived in America. Mad cow has become the disease of the moment, and while some critics would have Americans turn away from red meat altogether for greener pastures, the truth is somewhat less disconcerting: There is no mad cow scare, only scare tactics.
You can’t turn on the television anymore without an “expert” telling you about some doomsday scenario involving BSE. Activist (and vegetarian) Michael Greger has already dubbed it the “plague of the 21st century.” Former cattle rancher (and current vegetarian) Howard Lyman has compared BSE to AIDS in terms of destructive potential. Add in some dramatizations of how BSE has a nasty tendency to leave its victim’s brain with spongy-looking wormholes, and let mass panic ensue.
The threat of BSE has been exaggerated to a point where even the most carnivorous of Americans may begin to question their Double-Double-eating ways. And why shouldn’t they? The country is already acting on fear. Leaders in this crusade, such as Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, have been up in arms demanding mandatory BSE testing for every cow killed in the United States — all 35 million of them — no matter how costly or unnecessary it may be.
In the meantime, meat-vending establishments all over the country are trying to distance themselves from the Washington slaughterhouses over fear of lost business. Even some college campus dining halls have posted disclaimers to ease student concerns about their beef.
As hard as it is to believe, all of this is the result of one cow. There is only one case of an actual person diagnosed with variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (or vCJD), the human version of BSE, in the United States — and she contracted the disease during her stay in England. Is it not possible that we might be overreacting just a little? For example, there have only been 153 vCJD deaths worldwide; not comparable at all to the AIDS epidemic.
It’s a sad reflection on society when hysterical fears have come to overshadow facts that clearly speak for themselves. First of all, the proteins or prions responsible for BSE are found mainly in the nervous system of cows and cows alone. While it is possible that stray proteins may find their way into your steak in the slaughterhouse, there is still little reason for concern. Cow brains are not as hot of a menu item as they used to be. The Center for Disease Control places the odds of contracting vCJD — even after eating a contaminated piece of meat — at one in 10 billion. Your chances are better for winning the lottery. As the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service has been saying, there is “virtually zero risk” of getting mad cow disease in the United States.
It boggles my mind how this “better-safe-than-sorry” attitude for a non-existent problem has spread so quickly. Regulations, such as the proposed testing of all cows for BSE, may make you feel better about the non-threat — but they come at a cost. Countries like Japan and South Korea are refusing American beef exports, further hurting the $40 billion industry. How far will this “madness” continue in order to placate unfounded fears?
We’re a country full of Atkins dieters and Big Mac eaters. Most of the people warning of the proposed dangers of red meat are more interested in preaching the wonders of a beefless lifestyle. Moral, ethical and health issues aside, the future of beef consumption in the United States should not be compromised by scare tactics. When it comes down to it, as the secretary of agriculture has said, “Beef is absolutely safe to eat.”
James Moon, The Daily Bruin, University of California Los Angeles.