Mad Cow Disease in America

The biggest animal-related story of the New Year is the discovery of a single Mad Cow-infected calf in late December and steps the U.S. government is taking to reduce both the public health and economic threat that this poses.

Although Mad Cow Disease doesn’t appear to be the sort of plague that animal rights activists once claimed it would be (I once attended a talk by Howard Lyman where he claimed the disease would rival AIDS) it is a serious public health threat and the precautions taken so far are more than warranted.

Of course some folks both inside and outside of the animal rights movement do not appear to have any problem substituting their ignorance where the facts do not quite fit the case.

Time Magazine writer Margaret Carlson decided to exaggerate to the number of cases of vCJD (the human form of Mad Cow Disease) in Great Britain. During an appearance on CNN ‘s Capitol Gang, Carlson said (emphasis added),

But the United States has a lot of information that Britain didn’t have when they had their outbreak of mad cow disease and the government kept saying, Don’t worry about it, and thousands of people contracted the disease. And while the system of branding and numbers and all that isn’t what it should be, it’s a lot better than it used to be, better than it is in Britain. And the testing is so much better. So it might be contained, and then there’ll be very little political fallout.

In fact, from 1996 through 2001, there were only 111 “probable cases” of vCJD. The total number of cases is likely to be less than 500 — and this in the country where people probably consumed more Mad Cow-tainted beef than any other.

The reality is that although fears of a widespread human outbreak might have been warranted in the mid-1990s, by the end of the decade it was clear that transmission of the disease between cows and human beings through the consumption of tainted meat was actually quite difficult.

But don’t tell that to former USDA veterinarian Lester Friedlander who had one of the more idiotic statements about Mad Cow Disease. Friedlander has rightly campaigned for years for a ban on downer animals — a ban which the Bush administration put in place after the announcement of the discovery of the Mad Cow-infected calf. Friedlander was widely quoted in news stories about the Mad Cow calf, but showed his ignorance in responding to USDA Secretary Ann Veneman’s statement that, “I plan to serve beef for my Christmas dinner and we remain confident in the
safety of our food supply.” According to a Go Vegan Texas!, Freidlander’s response was,

She might as well kiss her ass goodbye, then.

What an ignorant statement. That would be like claiming that people should stop eating vegetables due to Hepatitis A outbreaks (which are a much bigger threat to human health than Mad Cow disease).

Animal rights groups are already trying to parlay the discovery of the Mad Cow-infected calf to push their campaigns for Americans to go vegetarian. Those are about as likely to succeed as past such campaigns have. In Great Britain there was an initial upsurge in vegetarianism which was later reversed when it became clear that the risk to human health was relatively small, especially after government-mandated changes in animal agriculture. In the United States, the odds of anyone actually contracting vCJD are so low that it’s doubtful there will even be any temporary upsurge in vegetarianism.


Special Two-Hour Report on Mad Cow Disease. Press Release, Go Vegan Texas!, December 29, 2003.

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