Editorial: Dinner on the Hoof: Who's Mad?
Has mad cow disease arrived on American shores? No one knows because, the fact is, no one is really checking. Only about 1 in every 75,000 cows has been examined for the disease, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not consider its human equivalent, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), to be a reportable condition. About 200 cases of CJD occur every year in the United States, but are presumed to be the "sporadic" variety caused by genetics, contaminated surgical equipment, or other factors, as opposed to the "new variant" type that is linked to mad cow disease. But, the possibility that mad cow disease may have set foot in the United States is suggested by the many outbreaks in recent decades of similar brain-wasting diseases in sheep, deer, elk, and, perhaps most telling of all, farmed mink fed on cattle remains.
But should it really matter? Long before the emergence of mad cow disease, foot-and-mouth disease, E.coli O157:H7, and other livestock infections, there were already compelling reasons to steer clear of meat. Meaty diets harbor enough saturated fat and cholesterol to bring on a heart attack. A switch to chicken does not help; it is nearly as high in fat and cholesterol as beef. If your heart had any say in the matter, meat would be off the menu completely. In 1990, Dr. Dean Ornish proved that a vegetarian diet, along with an otherwise healthy lifestyle, lowers cholesterol levels dramatically and actually reverses heart disease.
Meats—beef, poultry, and fish—also often contain heterocyclic amines, cancer-causing chemicals that form during the cooking process. And meat also pushes up the levels of cancer-promoting hormones in the body. The problem is not so much the traces of hormones used in beef production. Rather, the high fat content in meat, dairy products, and similar foods actually stimulates the body to manufacture more of its own hormones—estrogen and testosterone—which are linked to cancer risk.
It's no big surprise that vegetarians have much less risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, hypertension, kidney problems, and even appendicitis, compared to meat-eaters. Recent evidence linking cholesterol to the loss of brain function in later life suggests that vegetarians, and especially vegans, will have an advantage there, too. Given these facts, and the startling statistic that Americans now eat approximately one million animals per hour, one has to wonder if it's the cows who are mad.
Neal D. Barnard, M.D.
President of PCRM