How Now Mad Cow?

Europe has a problem with diseased cattle. Should Texans be wary?

Journalists, it must be revealed, do love a disaster or, pending that, a disaster in the making. No one in the profession has ever received a Pulitzer Prize for reporting that the sun is shining.

Pretty much anyone in the profession, or at least anyone within a few hours' drive of Wharton, knows that Dan Rather went from being a provincial nobody to a national network somebody by reporting on a hurricane that was blowing through Galveston. They know it, and they keep it in mind. It would not surprise anyone in the business to learn that Dr. Neil Frank, even in the twilight of his career, keeps a yellowed clipping of young Dan on the seawall, which he can consult like a talisman at the start of every day.

Thus, the current European outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy and good old hoof-and-mouth disease is keeping reporters up late, staring into the radioactive glow of the computer monitor far past their usual bedtime with the rapt attention of a newly minted Caesar before the Sibylline Oracle.

So far, the news that eating a hamburger could turn your brain into a spongy mass incapable of functioning adequately even with the aid of Dick Cheney has not troubled Texans overmuch. Based on a survey of local restaurateurs by this august publication and statistics gathered by actual professional statisticians, beef consumption in Texas is up and going up further. There are at least two reasons. First, Texans don't like to show fear. What the Israelis are to Diaspora Jews, Texans are to the residents of the other 49 states. Second, Texans have a Special Relationship with beef. Dan Rather's father, the son recently recounted on a talk show, retorted to an Austin waitress who offered him a salad with his steak, "Salad?! Salad is what food eats!" You can't get any clearer than that on the subject.

In addition to journalists, various food faddists are celebrating the celebrity of BSE. Web sites run by people out to prove that drinking milk and eating cheese is a cruel and unusual imposition upon our ruminant friends are positively gleeful about the prospect of the disease being transmitted via dairy products. One site offers a list of quotes, including a sentence purportedly from the Times of London of August 23, 1997: "A 24-year-old vegetarian has been diagnosed with Cruetzfeld-Jacob [sic] disease. Scientists fear that milk and cheese may be the source of infection." (You cannot be too sure! Save your immortal soul by going vegan today!) The looming plague mentioned in the alleged quote is actually spelled Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Creutzfeldt-Jakob, usually shortened to CJD in the scientific literature, needs to be given a proper introduction at this point. A certain Dr. Alzheimer, a man who gave his name to a disease now afflicting one out of every three living former Republican presidents, had two younger colleagues, a Dr. Creutzfeldt and a Dr. Jakob. Alzheimer published his description of his eponymous disease in 1908. The two whippersnappers under his tutelage published a description of what they proudly denominated as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease soon after. Thus, the news of CJD is nearly a century old. BSE was first identified in the United Kingdom in 1986, and peaked there in January 1993 at almost 1,000 new cases per week. This was eight years ago. Admittedly, the UK has reported more than 180,000 total cases of BSE to date, and about 1,800 cases have been found elsewhere in the European Union.

To quote a bulletin that the Food and Drug Administration released on March 1, "No evidence exists to indicate that BSE spreads through routine contact between cattle or from routine contact between cattle and humans or other species." What scientists have found, in fact, is a good deal more circumscribed. The disease that so far has killed some 88 people in Britain and ten elsewhere in Western Europe is a variant of CJD, first referred to as vCJD, then as a "new variant" called, not surprisingly, nvCJD. British scientists found a relationship between the old BSE and the relatively new nvCJD in 1996. This is what has killed 95 people in the United Kingdom, one in Ireland and three in France to date. While it would not be desirable to be one of the 99 unfortunates, it should be pointed out that more people are struck by lightning every year than come down with nvCJD. Some individuals, however, may still want to fret about their chances. For the truly advanced fretter, there is even a case on record of a man being struck by lightning while carrying a case of dynamite across an open field.

There have been no cases of BSE found in the United States and Puerto Rico, although similar diseases, termed transmittable spongiform encephalopathies, or TSEs, have been found in sheep, goats, mink, deer, elk, and domestic and exotic cats. None of these has ever been found to cross species lines. The only really human-specific TSE is a disease called kuru, which in 1957 afflicted the Fore tribe of the New Guinea highlands. It was transmitted by eating an undercooked brain of another, infected Fore. The Fore called it laughing sickness, because victims appeared to die by laughing uncontrollably until they asphyxiated.

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