Saturday, January 15, 2005

We've all Gone MAD COW

This country has been waiting for several years since the US closed the border to Canadian beef exports due to cases of Mad Cow disease or BSE. Now, just as the US was announcing that it will reopen its border there are two more cases, again, from Alberta. could things be worse?

Passions fly high. Some people have chosen to go vegetarian in order to avoid all possible avenues of contracting the human version of Mad Cow, Creutzfeld-Jacob disorder. There are those who smugly say: I don't trust the beef industry. Ralph Klein, the Alberta Premier has offered to do a culling of cows, incinerating cows older than 2 and a half years as far as I can tell, and further destroy the beef industry. Now he might be changing his mind because many, including myself, view this as extreme. Besides, what's the purpose of killing thousands of cows that are old enough to show symptoms of Mad Cow disease regardless of whether or not they do show symptoms when as far as research into this disease goes, it's not confirmed whether or not younger cows already have BSE, or whether BSE can be passed through milk, or occur in Pigs for that matter? The only thing doing a cattle cull would be to instigate the mass suicide of farmers and give Ralph Klein an air of good PR and calm the irrational emotions of people who don't know enough about the situation to know one way or another whether that would solve the problem.

People are critical of the beef farmers and the inspection requirements that we have in place but I don't know if they realise what a tricky situation it is to deal with. They've cited Japan as a pragmatic country, one who inspects all cattle before slaughter, perhaps we should give them a halo, but perhaps they're forgetting that there is not a test in the world that can confirm or deny cases of BSE. The only indicator is symptoms.

I know, because I gave blood this morning and had to answer a questionnaire, that Creutzfeld-Jacob syndrome is a terrible thing that results in loss of motor activity, brain function and eventually, death. I'm not trying to downplay people's concern over the cases of mad cow and the fact that if prions from the brain of an infected cow were to entre the bodies of humans, it could give them CJ disease. However, the known cases of Creutzfeld that I've heard of have all come from brain-grafts or from eating human brains. A now banned product that used to be used to cover the brains of patients was made from the tissue of cadavers and made in Germany. I wanted to get a sense of how easy it is to monitor the spread of these prions so I asked the nurse who was verifying my answers on my questionnaire: "so, we could all have Creutzfeld Jacob disease and none of us would know right?" "That is correct." You, see, the only way of confirming a case, is when it's too late.

What about prevention then, you ask. That is the key, I answer. This doesn't mean that I've stopped eating meat. In fact, I'm quite confident that I won't end up resembling a mental zombie. Many are outraged that cattle were fed small portions of bone meal from other cattle to give them extra protein. That has stopped since the first cases of BSE. What hasn't stopped is the feeding of animals altogether to other animals. If that grosses you out, I don't blame you. But now, they want to ban the use of animals ruminants in all feed and even fertilizer. Sure, I'd be for that but I don't think it's necessary to eliminate BSE.

My reason is this: you can't get BSE from muscle tissue as far as I know. It comes from prions that are in the brain and the spinal cord. These are risk cuts that should never be used from any animal unless you're butchering it yourself. The Canadian system has removed the brain and spinal cords of animals that are slaughtered for food that entres our market. The problem we have here then, is not a food crisis, but a feed crisis. Animals could still technically be fed risky parts of other animals, even if it's just a millionth of an inch, and they could contract BSE.

We have a lot to sort out here before the consumer confidence in Canadian beef is renewed. The first problem though, is getting people to understand the issue and take notice of the fact that as far as we know (and yes, I wish we could be sure but we're not even sure whether we all have the human form of Mad Cow yet or not) no cow with BSE has entred the food supply. It should give us more confidence that cases of BSE have been admitted. What scares me though, is that politicians seem to be rushing to solutions which aren't really solutions to the problem, but seem to be merely a solution to the public frenzy and controversy caused by the BSE crisis.

My recommendation is that no animals are killed unless they show symptoms of BSE and even then, they would be more productive for study than incineration. Stop the use of animal ruminants of any kind for feed and fertilizer because it just grosses me out to be eating omnivores that are supposed to be herbavores. Figure out how the systems of other European countries operate other than the UK, and copy them.

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