Love Those Crazy Cows

by Stan Kahn

What a great Christmas present to the American people, BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy). What I mean is, it’s about time. Not that mad cow has come to the US – anyone sufficiently educated about these matters who could call on an iota of common sense knew it was already widespread – but that the masses are finally learning of it. Hey, this could save lives.

What is most astounding about this affair is the ostrich-like behavior on the part of the regulatory-industrial complex in thinking, hoping against hope, fervently believing in contradiction of all logic and rationality, that they could somehow pass on this disease to the American consumer without ever getting caught.

Take Agriculture Secretary Anne Venemen, her CV prior to her current position regulating food safety includes lobbying for the beef industry. In a normal world, you’d expect the honest players in the business to strongly favor safeguards to protect the food supply, otherwise something stupid and terrible could happen, like mad cow disease, that could possibly devastate their industry and impact their profits for years. Ah, but doing it right costs money (the difference between feeding cows grains or slaughterhouse waste is 30%) and we all know about the importance of this year’s bottom line, don’t we?

The Secretary is so reassuring when she talks of the 20,000 cows that were tested last year, she’s really proud of the work the FDA has been doing. But then why keep the data a secret? Back in June United Press International asked to see the data on the testing program; they were stonewalled. They subsequently filed a Freedom of Information Act request, which the Agriculture Department still hasn’t complied with.

Besides, there’s a big problem with that number, it’s only a small percentage of the cows that arrive at slaughterhouses with symptoms of BSE, not to mention the many who might have the disease in its earlier stages that show no symptoms. Two hundred thousand (or 130,000 depending on which newspaper you read) of the cows that arrive at packing plants every year ready for slaughter are called ‘downers’, that is, they can’t stand on their own feet. That doesn’t mean they all have BSE, but obviously they’re not terribly healthy. The first American crazy cow, which, by the way, was fed to US consumers before the test results came in, was a downer. But even now that Venemen has announced that all downers will be tested, it’s still nowhere near enough.

Starting in 1997, in response to the BSE problem in the UK, cows were no longer allowed to be fed to cows, however cows could still be fed to chickens and pigs and then chickens and pigs fed back to cows. Is this science fiction or what? Meanwhile cow blood, which can contain the prions that cause BSE, can still be fed to calves. And while cow brains and spinal chords have been prohibited as any kind of animal feed; who believes that the workers – mostly immigrants, earning shit wages working under heavy production pressure in the slaughterhouses, which have extremely high turnover rates – are going to be careful about what goes into animal feed? Or that feed plants will be conscientious about keeping everything separate?

Ah, but the first US crazy cow actually was born in Canada, so no problem... except 1.7 million live Canadian cows were imported into the US last year. And while the US maintains its boycott of beef from north of the border in response to the first Canadian mad cow discovered in May of this year, it’s going around the world trying to convince others that US beef is safe.

As it turns out, American consumers, just as they kept up their patriotic shopping duty after 9-11, have taken mad cow in stride, they believe in the factory food system. Who says cows have to eat grass, anyway? Tainted food is cheaper and besides it looks just as good, besides isn’t the USDA (part of the government we love to hate) looking out for consumers? How could they not have the best interests of the American people at heart? Anne Venemen knows about beef, and she says it’s ok, so where’s the beef?

A good friend of mine died of madness a few years back, that’s really the only way I can describe it. He was getting totally wigged out near the end, no doubt about it, but why would mental illness kill a physically strong and healthy man in his early fifties in just a year or two after he first lost his marbles? People walk around insane for a lifetime without being offed by it, why did it kill him? We’ll never know if it was the human form of BSE (or how many other Americans have died the same way) because you have to open the skull and test brain tissue to find out. But I always had a strong suspicion. And I’m not alone, according to a recent well-documented article in (the best online site for progressive news) thousands of people in the US are dying of mad cow every year.

Lately I’ve been buying these extra sweet and tart but tiny – some are half the size of a ping-pong ball – locally grown tangerines at the market. I could get the big round beautiful ones imported from Thailand, each with its little ID sticker, but as the market vendors will tell you, the Thais give them “medicine”. No thanks, I’ll take my tangerines straight and unmedicated.

Truth is, it’s hard to know exactly what you’re getting here. On the one hand, chemicals are expensive so the food might be organically grown by default, but even here in Cambodia many farmers think crops need poisons so they will get them when they can. The problem is that the instructions on the label are always in a foreign language so they have no idea of the correct dose or how to protect themselves.

Personally, getting back to American food, I strongly shy away from it and will always choose a European alternative. (I mostly eat fresh local food but I do buy a candy bar or crackers or jar of peanut butter at times) When you look at the ingredients in processed European food, surprise, surprise, it turns out to be all food! Where’s the propylene glycol? The disodium iosinate? The wood esters? (in Coca-Cola). The hydrolyzed, hydrogenized, hyperventilated, hypermarketed synthetic-hormone-treated, genetically modified, artificially flavored, antibiotically infused, imitation food protein?

Is this science fiction or what?