Product Reviews from a Scientific Perspective

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Mad Cow Disease explained

Almost three years ago the Obama administration banned the slaughter of "downer" cows, cows that exhibited neurological dysfunction. The move was aimed at lowering the chance of infecting consumers with "Mad Cow Disease," more appropriately known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.

The disease attacks the brain, destroying a person's ability to think and speak, destroying his memories and personality. In effect, the symptoms are hardly different from dementia or Alzheimer's.

While the ban was a needed move in the right direction, the USDA and other government agencies are not going far enough. "Downer cows" are cows that have hit the very last stages of mad cow disease—cows whose brains are swimming with the particle responsible for this disease: the prion.

A prion is a protein that has the unique ability to take other proteins and turn them into its own shape. Prions are like zombies (or for you Trek fans, the Borg) who take normal human beings and turn them into one of them. Eventually, so many of these proteins accumulate in the brain that it results in brain damage. If your brain cells (neurons) are the pipes that deliver information, the plaques that form from the proteins clumping together are like sewage stopping up the pipe. In this case, the pipe can burst: those protein clumps can destroy entire brain cells.

This disease spreads because our beef industry is insane enough to feed cows the inedible remains of other cows. The parts that humans are loathe to eat—such as the brain and spinal cord—are ground up and fed to cows to save money on feed. Of course, an infected cow's brain and spinal cord are full of prions. These prions go on to infect more cows, creating more of themselves, and so forth. Unfortunately, a cow can still seem somewhat healthy and be infected with a lot of these prions. That's why banning "downer cows" just doesn't go far enough.

Frankly, it's not difficult for ranchers and beef companies to test their beef. It costs only a few more cents per pound. Some companies, in fact, volunteered to test, only to be stopped by the USDA. Of course, a few more cents per pound results in millions to billions of dollars of lost profit, according to big corporations' calculations. However, I'm sure that most consumers would gladly pay a few more cents per pound in order to eat safer beef, if these companies would simply pass on the costs to the consumer. They do it all the time with taxes!

Unfortunately, the beef industry is incredibly politically powerful, even since the 1800s. They've been getting subsidies for a long, long time. Yes, you heard right—your very own tax dollars are supporting our massive beef industry. (I'm sure vegetarians and vegans reading this are already grinding their teeth.) So I'm quite cynical as to how well we can rely on the government for a solution to this.

Mad Cow Disease (Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease) works very very slowly in human beings. It can be up to 30 years after initial infection before the disease manifests itself. There's also some evidence that suggests that a lot of these cases are misdiagnosed as Alzheimer's or dementia, which is frightening—we may have an emerging epidemic in 30 years with thousands or even millions of people literally losing their minds.

Lawsuits on defective products

In case something goes wrong with your product..

The general law of the land (and by which I'm talking about the United States) goes by strict product liability.

Now, this doesn't mean you can sue every single time the product in question causes some kind of damage. What it means is that you can sue every distributor that ever carried that particular defective product that caused you damage. So if Clear Care was manufactured by CIBA Vision, sent to K-Mart, and the product had a defect that burned your eyes, then both CIBA Vision and K-Mart can be sued.

Now, you can't sue regarding just anything. There are two types of defects. One is a manufacturing defect, and the other is a design defect.

The manufacturing defect is an easy one. Basically, if the particular product is somehow different from all the rest, and that difference caused the damages, you can sue. 

The design defect is a different one. Most states look at the entire product, and ask the question whether the design that allowed the damage to occur in the first place was worth the benefits of the entire design. Basically, was there a way to make the product safer? Sometimes if you fix a particular problem in the design, it'll actually make the product less safe overall. Different states have different tests, and some look at whether the average consumer would have expected a certain degree of safety, and whether that standard was met. In any case, there's generally a balancing act; on one hand is the overall safety and effectiveness of the product. On the other hand is the particular risk of that design and the damage it does. 

Now, a company can be liable for not only for any predictable problems from the product's proper and intended usage, but also the product's unintended or improper usage! So a person who misuses a product can actually sue the company that design it!

"So why can't I sue Clear Care manufacturers CIBA Vision?" you might ask. Let's say you burned your eyes because you thought that the bottle was just regular contact lens solution, and you gave a nice squirt straight into your eyes, and burned them! It's a misuse of the product, but that's covered, right?

Well, it turns out that they've covered their butts. How? Because they had a warning label.

Generally, the law presumes that if you could have put a warning label down, consumers would have followed it (unless shown otherwise). But when there's a warning label, your only hope is to convince the judge or jury that the warning label was still inadequate to warn of danger. 

Of course, all of this is very general. Each individual state determines its own particular laws regarding defective products. So, you might be thinking that you've wasted your time reading this article...and to a certain extent, you'd be right. But at least you know a little better as to whether it'd be worth contacting a lawyer in the first place, and whether you even have a chance at winning. As for the rest of us who aren't out there to sue, we can be rest assured that, as long as there isn't a warning label on the product, the product is most likely safe to the best of the manufacturer's knowledge. (Emphasis on "most likely").
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