And what about BSE? First, a brief explanation of what it is. BSE is Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, commonly called “Mad Cow Disease.” The FDA defines this as “a chronic, degenerative disorder affecting the central nervous system of cattle.” It progresses slowly, but is always fatal. The exact cause of BSE is uncertain, but it’s generally accepted that it’s due to a type of protein, called a “prion,” normally present in cattle. For reasons not yet determined, some prions can become infectious. BSE has a long incubation period, and is either absent or undetectable in young animals. In humans, a similar disorder is called CJD, or Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.
CJD occurs sporadically in human populations, usually among those over the age of 60, at the rate of about one case per million people per year. But in 1996 came the announcement in the U.K. of 10 cases of CJD in younger people not considered at high risk for the disease (the average age of these ten was 27). A decade later, it is acknowledged that humans can contract CJD by consuming beef from cattle with BSE. No cases of CJD that originated from BSE-contaminated cattle raised in the US have been confirmed, but some are suspected.
Why is BSE important to this discussion? Because of another animal disease called scrapie, which has affected sheep and goats for at least two centuries. Conventionally-raised cattle have long been fed fats and proteins along with grass and grains; it helps them gain weight more quickly. Unfortunately, much of the fat and protein they’ve been fed in more recent times comes from other animals. In the U.K., at least, the leftover parts of butchered sheep were included as part of cattle protein supplements.
It’s thought, but cannot be determined conclusively, that scrapie jumped species to become BSE. Given that scrapie is a degenerative disorder affecting the central nervous systems of sheep and goats, and that it’s always fatal, that doesn’t seem an unreasonable assumption. But again, it probably can’t be proven.
In the U.S., cattle can no longer eat feed containing byproducts from other cattle, sheep, and goats, nor can they consume cattle blood or poultry litter (which includes feces). However, the FDA still permits cattle to eat feed containing byproducts of pigs, fish, chicken, and horses, among other animals. They can also be fed pig and horse blood, as well as tallow, a fat derived from cattle.
True, animal byproducts are processed extensively before being turned into animal feed. They’re ground, then heated to temperatures as high as 300°F for as long as an hour. The problem is that such a cooking period doesn’t kill or inactivate prions, the agents responsible for BSE. They can and do withstand much higher temperatures.
Photo by Vaughan Willis.
None of this addresses the ethical concerns of conventionally-raised cattle. These include, but are not limited to, lack of sufficient living space for natural behavior, lack of safe and humane transportation to processing facilities, lack of access to proper pasture and the outdoors in general, and improper stunning prior to slaughter.
Have I put you off beef entirely yet? Let’s all draw a breath, take a step back, and see what organic production has done and can do about these problems.