Saturday, July 07, 2007

Unsafe, Untested, and Tasty

Let’s talk about cannibalism for five minutes. It’s one of those absurd concepts that simultaneously roil your stomach and keep you from looking away. The Donner party of 150 years ago is still worth a dark joke, and Hannibal Lecter has been good for four movies so far. Meanwhile, at Princeton, I can frequently count on a friend to remark—after sorting their extra food into the garbage—that it seems rather strange to feed pigs to pigs. They’ve just tossed the remains of a ham sandwich (or some sausage and eggs) into the garbage can, but the fact that the food in the can is fed to pigs is not worth much thought.

I am not here saying that pigs are about to have some sort of moral revulsion to eating a fellow pig, the way that you or I would hesitate before biting into our roommate. (Even if they leave laundry everywhere.) What I am saying is to think about the health consequences of eating meat when the meat industry feeds pigs pigs and cows cows.

Several years ago, there was an outbreak of mad cow disease. Mad cow was caused by cattle being fed other cattle. More interesting was the apparently related new disease, known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which literally liquefied the brains of those who were infected with it—CJD was a new human variant of mad cow. The news played images of hellish funeral pyres for thousands of cows; mad cow cropped up in a much smaller proportion in America; and the Red Cross still has strict restrictions on blood donations from anyone who may have come in contact with any of that meat.

The reason that mad cow was a problem in the first place is that cattle crammed into feedlots need to be fed cheaply; they need lots of protein; and one cheap way to do that is to feed the animals leftover chunks of their dead brethren. Of course, on a simple biological level, cows—along with chickens and other food animals—are meant to be herbivores. Cows have four stomachs so that they can break down the cellulose in grass, not eyeballs.

Until a few years ago, every time you had a hamburger, the several thousand cows that constituted that burger had grown up eating the corpses of household pets purchased from animal shelters, along with sawdust and the remains of sick, dying cows that couldn’t go straight to meat.

Faced with the threat of mad cow, the FDA drafted regulations to ban the feeding of animals to other animals. The meat industry vehemently objected, and the final ban did prevent cows from being fed other cows, sheep, goats, or dogs—with the exception that cows can still be fed the blood, liquefied bone marrow, and tallow. The ban also placed absolutely no restrictions on what could be fed to hogs, poultry, pets, or animals in zoos.

Studies in Europe showed that pigs and other feed animals were fully susceptible to different variants of mad cow disease. Stricter European bans that completely prohibit feeding ruminants (goats, sheep, cattle, elk, or deer) to other ruminants have not proven totally sufficient to stop the spread of mad cow. America’s own Center for Disease Control has called for America to follow Europe’s suit with an identical ban—at a bare minimum.

You could write these facts off by pointing out that there hasn’t been a violent outbreak of CJD, and that there haven’t been hundreds of people dying with their brains liquefied—yet. But the fact that these practices continue, added to the fact that your meat is already contaminated with vomit, urine, and feces from kill lines that travel too fast—no matter how much you cook it, disinfected poop is still poop—might make you want to reconsider that next bite of meat. The fact that the USDA doesn’t actually have statutory authority to demand that meat factories recall contaminated meat when it’s discovered might make you hesitate. The fact that not much is actually known about the human variant—including the incubation period—so an epidemic could still be forthcoming, is startling.

Finally, much of the justification for acceding to the meat industry’s protestations against stricter feed regulations stemmed from the fact that American cattle haven’t had severe outbreaks of mad cow. But, it’s rather hard to know if American cattle, or other animals, have mad cow disease if we don’t test them—and we are rather lacking in that department. For example, from 1990 to 2001, the US slaughtered 375 million cows, and only tested 15,000 for mad cow. Belgium has a cattle herd that is one-thirtieth the size of America’s, and tests 400,000 a year.

The joke about hot dogs is that no one really knows what’s in them. The sad truth about meat is that you have no idea what’s in it anyway.
Jordan Bubin '09
PAWS member

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