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4 January 2004 Back to Medical Updates

COMMENTS ON MAD COW'S DISEASE

by nicola michael c. Tauraso, M.D.


This present issue on Mad Cow’s Disease (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy {BSE}) brings to mind an experience I once had in Washington State. I was traveling from Seattle on the west coast to Yakima, on the eastern side of the Sierra Mountain range. The annual waterfall on the coast is very high – probably the highest in the United States – and it decreases considerably as you travel East across the mountains. By the time you are completely on the other side of the mountains the rainfall is very close to zero and you are in the high dessert area of central Washington state.

As you travel down the last mountain there on the right is the Washington Beef Company next to which is one of the largest beef feeder lots I have ever seen. I used to travel this route quite often as I was on a seminar tour going from Seattle to Yakima then onto Spokane in the far eastern part of the state close to the Montana border. On several occasions – at least three, if not four – the feeder lots were flooded because of the large amounts of rain, and the cattle in some areas of the feeder lot were at least knee deep, sometimes up to their bellies, in mud and “shit” while they were eating in the nearby troughs. I often wondered how they were able to clean these animals when they were processed in the nearby slaughter house at the far end of the Washington Beef Company feeder lot.

Years later, people, especially children, died from eating beef contaminated with the pathogenic Escherichia coli (E. Coli, strain O157:H7) bacteria in some of the local Seattle Sizzler’s restaurants. I am quite. sure that some of the beef from the local Washington Beef Company found its way into the local restaurants.

I called the Washington, DC, office of the United Stated Department of Agriculture (USDA) to discuss my observations of the feeder lots with their cows knee and belly deep in mud and feces. Have you ever tried to discuss such an item with bureaucrats who really are not aware – and perhaps, not even interested – in problems in the fields? The double talk and whitewash was quite evident. They retorted with did I “not think that their inspectors were aware of this?” Well, really, the answer would have been that they were not aware because obviously nothing was ever done about correcting the problem.

Now what about BSE? If you have any idea what garbage is fed cows in these feeding lots, you probably would not eat beef again. This is agribusiness at its worst. Whoever thought of feeding cows remnants of other animals? Cows are vegetarian and should be eating grass and grains. They should not be eating parts of other animals.

In England and Scotland, sheep and goats have for years been infected and dying with a similar virus, called scrapie. Scrapie is a virus related to a larger group of viruses which are made up of a special protein called “prion.” These prion viruses cannot be inactivated or destroyed by heat. Hypotheses for the structure of the infectious prion particle included the following: 1) proteins surrounding a nucleic acid that encodes the proteins (a virus), 2) proteins associated with a small polynucleotide, and 3) proteins devoid of nucleic acid. The scrapie-like viruses can be boiled and even autoclaved (super heat under pressure) without destruction. Most other proteins are destroyed by heat. To destroy pure prion viruses you have to treat it by chemical means. However, treating prion viruses with chemicals destroys the ability of using the animal organs for food purposes.

Kuru was the first human virus of this group shown to cause disease in man. Dr. Carleton Gadjusek studied the native populations of New Guinea who were eating the brains of their dead to assume the greatness of their ancestors. The women and children would consume the brains of people dying of Kuru, and the disease was perpetuated. Other human diseases include: Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease (CJD) and the German-Straussler-Scheinker Disease (GGD).

Less well known prion diseases include: transmissible mink encephalopathy, chronic wasting disease, feline spongiform encephalopathy, exotic ungulate encephalopathy, the German-Straussler-Scheinker syndrome (GSS) already mentioned, and fatal familial insomnia. It now appears that prion viruses are not species specific and that they are able to cross infect other animal species. For years laboratories have been prohibited from experimenting with scrapie virus even with strains growing in mice unless the laboratories were certified to be able to deal with highly contagious infectious agents.

Although much of updated information is now being gathered about the characteristics of prion viruses, we have known for a long time that these viruses were very stable and unaffected by usual methods of inactivation and destruction. The Mad Cow’s Disease appeared to originate in Great Britain where including animal parts in the production of animal foods was very common. In the United States, this practice has been forbidden. Sheep and goats were dying for years in Great Britain because of scrapie and there appeared to be no effort to exclude the organs of dying animals from getting into the production of animal feeds.

What's a person to do?

First, try to find a source of beef produced by farms which have certified their herds that they have not come from dubious sources, and

Second, insure that these farms feed their cows only grass and grain, and not feed produced by third parties who may be adding animal products, such as ground up organs and bone meal, to the feed.

In the Frederick, Maryland area where I live, there are many such farms producing this kind of beef. Yes, it will probably be more expensive. But then, so staying healthy is equally important.

nicola michael c. Tauraso, M.D.
Tauraso Medical Clinic
www.drtauraso.com