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The Physicians Committee

Editorial: The Mad Cow Threat: Is Beef Safe?

mad cowsAmericans have looked at beef skeptically since the emergence of mad cow disease in the United States in December. Agriculture authorities scrambled to find where the slaughtered cow’s remains had ended up, and they killed other potentially affected cows. But the question lingered: “Is beef safe?”

The answer is clearly no. Mad cow disease is transmitted by prions, abnormal proteins that are immune to solvents and even to intense heat and flame. The disease can be transmitted from infected sheep, and, in fact, U.S. sheep have carried spongiform encephalopathies since 1947. A similar disease also turned up on mink farms, where farmers had used rendered cattle remains as feed.

In 1997, the U.S. Department of Agriculture banned the feeding of ruminant animal (cow, sheep, and goat) remains to other ruminants. But it allows livestock operations to fill their troughs with other rendered animal remains and even chicken manure left over from huge chicken operations.

The real reason meat is not safe relates to the illnesses that seem to have slipped out of the public's spongiform memory.

About 300 cases of the human form of mad cow disease, Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease (CJD), are reported every year. Health authorities have their fingers crossed, hoping that all are simply the “sporadic” variety that is unrelated to meat-eating. But no one knows for sure—there is no mandatory reporting of CJD.

But the real reason meat is not safe relates to the illnesses that seem to have slipped out of the public’s spongiform memory.Before mad cow emerged, beef was occasionally tainted with deadly E. coli O157:H7. And before E. coli, salmonella was routinely found, and still is. And before that, scientists learned that frequent meat-eaters have approximately a three-fold increase in colon cancer risk. And new evidence links animal fat to breast cancer. Decades of evidence have linked animal protein to osteoporosis and kidney damage, and, of course, there is good, old-fashioned fat and cholesterol.

A switch to chicken or to fish does not change any of this. Fish, in particular, are loaded with mercury, pesticides, and organichlorine contamination as a matter of routine. Fish and chicken contain significant amounts of cholesterol and, while fat content varies from one species to another, all poultry and fish products contain saturated fat—the kind that promotes heart problems.

Happily, food distributors are rushing to your defense with veggie burgers, veggie bacon and sausage, faux chicken and faux fish, and just about everything else. As you wheel your grocery cart around the produce shelves, you can take heart in the fact that no scientist ever discovered a “mad carrot.”

Neal D. Barnard, M.D.
President of PCRM

Neal Barnard, M.D.

Winter 2004
Volume XIII
Number 1

Good Medicine

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