So here's why I'm not eating beef. Or at least trying not to.
It's not because I think that I'm going to get sick with mad cow's disease. In fact, humans can't get mad cow; the term refers to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) which as the name suggests is sickness that affects cows only. This chronic wasting disease (CWD) causes lesions in the brain which leads to a host of symptoms and is always fatal. Even more sinister, the incubation time in cows can be as much as eight years. Similar forms of this disease can infect other animals such as deer and elk.
BSE is one of a family of transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSE) that are spread by a protein-like agent called a prion. Research on prions is extremely limited, as the agent does not fall into either a virus or a bacteria in the way it attacks the patient. Prions cause mutations in proteins in the brain, slowly building up damage until the host begins to suffer symptoms.
These same prions have been found in humans, causing another CWD called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD). The original Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease was extremely rare, but a sudden increase in 1990 in the United Kingdom led to intense research into the problem. Investigation found that the prion which causes BSE and vCJD originated in sheep which died of scrapie (yet another CWD). The remains of these sheep (after the usable meat was removed, also called slaughter wastes) were rendered down into food for cows. The rendering process did not kill the prions which spread to cows and then humans.
The prion is a very tough agent. It cannot be destroyed by cooking or normal food processing. It can lay dormant for long periods of time, and it is currently impossible to test an animal for prions without killing it and inspecting the brain tissue under a microscope.
There is no way of knowing how many people have been infected with vCJD. The prions which cause the disease work somewhat differently in humans, and may take much longer to incubate, perhaps as much as 30 years.
One the bright side, many scientists have argued that the chances of getting vCJD in the U.S. is extremely low, on the order of one in several million. Assuming this is true, you are far more likely to die in a car accident (one in 7,500), succumb to the flu (one in 8300), or be struck by lightning (one in 300,000). You're about as likely to die in a plane (one in 1.5 million) as you are to get vCJD.
It's true that the scientists may be wrong. But fear of vCJD is not why I stopped eating beef. I'm boycotting cows because I think the average person has absolutely no idea how the food on their plate is made. And this willful ignorance has allowed the food industry to self-regulate and develop hideous and ill-advised practices. I feel that the pressures of society and the desire for gain have caused us to make extremely poor decisions, and these choices have the potential for devastating consequences. Is today's scare just the tip of the iceberg?
It is obvious that things could be far worse than we imagine. In the U.S., we test less than one tenth of a percent of our cattle for BSE--a horrible number and statistically insignificant. And there are no guarantees that the material from the brain, spinal cord, spleen, and lymph nodes (where prions are concentrated) won't end up in your beef, even in the muscle cuts that the Department of Agriculture asserts as "essentially zero risk to consumers". Furthermore, the slaughtering and rendering processes are violent and imprecise. Slaughter begins with a pneumatic blow to the skull which may send infected tissue into the bloodstream. Less than one gram of infected brain tissue can transmit the disease orally to another cow; large chunks of brain matter have been found in livers and lungs of slaughtered cows.
And frankly, I don't think that the standards for pork, chicken, or any other assembly-line meat are any better. Especially considering the fact that the BSE prion originated in sheep, and that cow meal could easily be fed to pigs, chickens, and other farm animals. And don't even get me started on toxic salmon; my enjoyment of sushi is already in jeopardy. (Original paper here in PDF format.)
But it's beef that's in the news, and we may have an opportunity now to right some serious wrongs with the way we address our food. We must reform the system, and in a capitalist world the only way to ensure that change occurs is to threaten the offending enterprises with our most potent weapon: our money. I am boycotting beef not because I'm worried I'll get sick, but because I'm worried about all the things we don't know about our food. I fear that unless we force the 21st food gatherers to have more respect for our health, we will consign ourselves to a most dire future.