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.

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