Interestingly, Oprah had devoted only a fraction of her original show to BSE/CJD; she bypassed the official topic to seize instead on the fact that "cows are eating other cows... they're cannibals." That in itself had "just stopped me cold from eating another hamburger," she declared. It was an industry promoter's worst nightmare: Even if the BSE scare could be managed, the things it stirred up might be worse. Two months later, feed and rendering industry spokespeople still go out of their way to point out that "people shouldn't think the cows are eating raw meat."

           For now, the crisis seems to have been defused. Beef sales are pretty well back to normal--McDonald's, for one, told the Wall Street Journal it never felt an impact--and the European Union has lifted a ban on British beef in return for a promise to kill and burn some 3,000 cows a week for several years. In the U.S., government agencies have announced a series of efforts designed to increase public confidence, such as increased slaughterhouse inspections and the FDA's proposed ruminant-to-ruminant feed ban.

           Whether any of those things will make much difference is unclear: So much remains unknown about BSE it's hard to say what, if anything, is safe or dangerous. Science has barely begun to probe the nature of the disease, and researchers are well aware of the political and economic stakes. In Britain, one of the most vocal scientific critics of government policy, Richard Lacey of Leeds University, was deemed in need of a "psychiatric evaluation" by one member of Parliament. And a scientist named Harash Narang, who for years had researched BSE for the British government, was fired after he went public with claims that his work on a simple test for the disease had been suppressed. Part of the controversy had apparently come when Narang announced that in trying out his test at a slaughterhouse, he found one in three animals headed for the human food supply to be positive for BSE.

           Some of the other big unknowns about BSE are less sensational, but equally far-reaching. So far, the infection has been found mostly in brains, spinal cords, and other organs that are supposed to be kept away from meat; but, as the British government found out last year, that may not mean much in modern slaughterhouses where meat and bones are separated by giant saws and sometimes ground to a pulp in the same crusher. Some researchers even speculate that the infectious agent could enter the bloodstream, and thus the meat itself, which would make all the other precautions pointless.

           Similarly, no one is sure which cow products are most likely to carry the disease. Speculation in England has focused on hamburger and sausage, which are most likely to contain meat from older cows who have had time to develop full-blown infections. But there's little information on whether cows without symptoms, such as beef cattle slaughtered at a young age, may transmit the infection too. Similar uncertainty applies to many of the other things made from cows--gelatin for yogurt and medication capsules, dried liver for nutritional supplements, collagen for wrinkle creams, and so on. Right now the FDA says those products are all safe; it has suggested manufacturers not use materials from countries where there is BSE, but it hasn't banned them.

           And finally, though officials say there's no evidence of any unusual CJD cases in the U.S., they don't have much data to go on so far. For one thing, studies suggest that a fair number of CJD cases may be misdiagnosed as having Alzheimer's disease; for another, though British doctors have been required to report CJD cases to the government since 1989, the U.S. has specifically resisted opening a registry for the disease. As the 1991 government PR plan noted, that would "appear to legitimize concern about a link between BSE and human health."

           Five years later, and just weeks after the British science committee's announcement, the Centers for Disease Control announced that it would take a little closer look at CJD incidence after all. Four states, including Minnesota, were selected to participate in a surveillance pilot project, and state epidemiologist Mike Osterholm says so far the evidence is reassuring. Two months' worth of surveying death certificates and interviewing neurologists, he says, didn't turn up any unusual cases of CJD or increased frequency of the disease. But he does acknowledge that that doesn't guarantee nothing's going on: Because of the disease's long incubation period, "if we find it we've already failed." There is, of course, an argument to be made over whether it's worth worrying about any of this. There are plenty of other potential risks in food, meat and otherwise; in contrast with some of them, BSE seems reassuringly theoretical. And the word "safe" itself gets slippery when it's caught up in regulations and statistics designed to assess everything from pesticides to nuclear plants. The British government found itself debating critics over whether safety meant "an absence of risk" or "not a very big risk."

           What's really annoying about the BSE/CJD story, as the British magazine New Statesman and Society noted, isn't so much a clear and present danger, but the fact that so much effort has been spent denying the possibility of risk. Listening to the official pronouncements, in Britain as in the U.S., you'd never have guessed that experts were at least considering the chances that an infectious agent of unknown power, transferred through food and possibly other means (blood and breast milk are being studied), was causing a disease that resulted in dementia and death. BSE may not turn out to be another AIDS disaster, or even anything beyond a cow disease. But to claim certainty one way or the other, scientists are beginning to admit, is hypocritical at best. As Joe Gibbs, deputy chief of the National Institutes of Health's central-nervous-system diseases lab, told Newsday's Laurie Garrett, "There is sound reason to suspect a strong link [between human illness and mad cow disease] in Britain. Are we sitting on a time bomb? There's no way of knowing. But I wouldn't be honest if I told you there was nothing to worry about.

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