Kirchheimer has authored numerous articles on food safety, and his photographs have been published in New York Times Magazine, Time, Newsweek, US News, Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, Forbes, Wired, Maxim, Psychology Today, Colors, London Independent Sunday Review, London Times, Il Venerdi di Repubblica, Panorama, Le Monde, Die Zeit, and Science Illustrated.
A vegan for the past 20 years, Kirchheimer believes that "the plight of the Earth demands positive solutions, and the media has a primary responsibility to go beyond token reportage."
Bovine Bioterrorism: The Perfect Pathogen
By Gabe Kirchheimer
In the wake of terrorist attacks on America, public health threats from within have been increasingly ignored. A new awareness of bioterrorism has been sparked by the discovery of anthrax spores sent around the country, the national media have been the targets of such incidents, and extreme fear and interest in terrorist activity have pushed many other issues to the margins of reportage. Of course, many unpopular concerns rarely make it to CNN regardless of the political climate, but ignorance is not always bliss.
Right under the noses of America, a fatal, untreatable and deeply hidden biological threat appears to be spreading virtually unchecked in the USA. Harder to detect than anthrax and far more stealthy, the Perfect Pathogen was not engineered or spread by a terrorist group. It did not escape from a top-secret military facility. The agent is not a virus, nor a bacterium, and contains no DNA. It is not even alive.
The Perfect Pathogen--which causes Mad Cow disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans--is a malformed protein molecule known as an infectious prion, and until recently, the unprecedented mechanism of its awesome destructive power was disbelieved by many of the world's leading biologists. The presence of the infectious agent in livestock is assured in perhaps half the countries of the world, although only a fraction have admitted it. While desperately denying the existence of Mad Cow disease on its own soil, America continues to profit from the honesty of its affected trade partners. This arrangement is quietly destroying the health of the nation, but business is booming.
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
The increase in TSEs (transmissible spongiform encephalopathies) among livestock and people is now recognized as an expanding worldwide plague. Tests in Europe, where most countries routinely fed millions of recycled cattle corpses back to cows until the crisis broke, have revealed many cases of BSE, in addition to the 177,000 confirmed in Britain, which has incinerated nearly five million cows as a result. Consumption of British beef has plummeted; financial losses have been catastrophic.
The disease vector--tainted cattle feed containing the ground-up remains of cows harboring infectious prions--has been shipped all over the Third World, a million tons to Asia alone. Japan has confirmed the presence of Mad Cow disease, its domestic beef market has been devastated almost overnight, and the world has reacted with another round of import bans. Nobody knows how many people have contracted new-variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (nvCJD) through contaminated beef and byproducts.
Not only meat, but many processed foods, drugs, vaccines, surgical instruments, dietary supplements and even cosmetics may carry this plague, spread mainly through the forced cannibalism of millions of bovines. In Britain and beyond, maternal transmission of nvCJD presages generations of victims. There is no treatment or cure. Experimental tests for the living recently have been developed, but there is no indication when they will be available.
A Clever Protein
The long-term implications for the planet and its human and animal inhabitants are staggering. The number of vehicles which may harbor this hidden killer runs like a shopping list of common products. Not even vegetarians are immune: white sugar is bleached with cow bones, and McDonalds French fries, advertised as prepared in "pure vegetable oil," are seasoned--like many products with "natural flavors"--with beef fat.
U.S. Cows: Sacred or Mad?
Meanwhile, chronic wasting disease (CWD), a similar condition which affects deer and elk, is epidemic in parts of the Southwest, and scrapie, the mad-sheep analogue suspected of infecting British cattle with BSE, has spread unchecked to 45 states. In addition to maternal transmission there is limited evidence that CWD, scrapie and BSE--all "prion diseases"--can be horizontally transmitted from one live animal to the next through close contact, perpetuating infection even in the absence of external agents. (Confusingly, Scrapie and BSE strains are capable of jumping between bovines and sheep, and a strain described as scrapie in sheep may be referred to as BSE when found in cattle, or the other way around, although such strain may have originated in the other species.)
State of Emergency
Effective February 1, 2000, then Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman proclaimed a Declaration of Emergency Because of Scrapie in the United States, due to a clear epidemic. "Scrapie, a degenerative and eventually fatal disease affecting the central nervous systems of sheep and goats, is present in the United States. Scrapie is a complicated disease because it often has an extremely long incubation period without clinical signs of disease. Currently, scrapie-free countries have an enormous competitive advantage over U.S. sheep producers, who are unable to certify that their flocks originated from a scrapie-free country or region.
"Because importing countries are demanding that imported sheep come from scrapie-free regions and sheep producers in the United States are unable to make this certification, U.S. producers are finding themselves locked out of the international market, a situation that is taking a serious financial toll on the U.S. sheep industry. . . .
"Therefore. . . I declare that there is an emergency that threatens the sheep and goat industry of this country, and I authorize the transfer and use of such funds as may be necessary from appropriations or other funds available to the United States Department of Agriculture to conduct a program to accelerate the eradication of scrapie from the United States."
This admission was followed by a Declaration of Emergency Because of Chronic Wasting Disease issued by Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman, effective Sept. 21, 2001. "Chronic wasting disease (CWD), a disease of deer and elk, is part of a group of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs), a group that also includes scrapie and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). While considered rare, the incidence of CWD is on the rise among both wild and domestic cervids. The disease, which occurs mostly in adult animals, is progressive and always fatal. The origin and mode of transmission of CWD are unknown. The disease has become of particular concern due to its fatal nature, lack of known prevention or treatment, its impact on the farmed cervid industry, and its possible transmissibility to cattle or other domestic livestock and humans."
And on October 25, 2001 Reuters reported, "Companies that make amino acids used in pharmaceuticals and vaccines should not use cattle and sheep from mad cow-infected countries as a source, a U.S. advisory panel said Thursday. . . . Current manufacturing processes cannot guarantee that prions, the infectious material thought to cause mad cow disease, would not be transmitted from amino acids to the end product."
A Reuters article the next day, "FDA Urged to Consider Ban on Cow Brain Products" by Ori Twersky, stated: "The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may soon consider banning the sale of any product containing cow brains or spinal tissue, whether made abroad or here in the US. "Expert advisors to the FDA voted 18 to 1 on Friday in favor of urging the federal agency to begin assessing the necessity and feasibility of passing regulations to either ban or restrict the use of products containing these tissues, due to the theoretical risk of 'mad cow' disease. "These products range from soup stock and sausage casings to cosmetics, drugs, medical devices and dietary supplements. . . . "But if the FDA should follow its committee recommendation, there are unlikely to be any immediate consequences. The FDA's rule-making process could take months and even years to complete, while the agency reviews the available data and upcoming studies. . . ."
WSJ Checks In
On August 29, 2001 none other than the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial, "Moo Over, Mad Cow Cometh" by Holman W. Jenkins Jr., admitting the futility of postponing reality. " 'Not a single case of mad cow' has been the proud mantra of the U.S. beef industry since the disease was discovered in Britain 15 years ago. Not finding a case, though, has been largely a function of not looking especially hard. . . . Looking is often finding, so this would seem to bode a consumer panic and economic disaster if mad cow is as widely spread as many experts believe. The U.S. cattle industry long ago convinced itself that a single case would mean curtains for its $3.6 billion in annual beef exports, not to mention a bruising domestic whack as consumers defect to chicken, pork or-horrors-soy burgers.
". . . Washington and the cattle lobby have spent a decade praying mad cow doesn't show up here, despite knowing it must sooner or later. Though 36 million head are slaughtered a year, the Agriculture Department has examined all of 12,000 brains since 1990. The time has come to gear up a real hunt for our first case, if only to get it over with."
CJD and nvCJD
The 100 British victims of nvCJD--which has a shorter incubation period--have been mostly younger people between 13-40 years of age. "Health officials say they've got mad cow under control, but millions of unaware people may be infected," warned a Newsweek cover story on March 12, 2001. "Once a few cattle contracted it, 20th-century farming practices guaranteed that millions more would follow. For 11 years... British exporters shipped the remains of BSE-infected cows all over the world [to] more than 80 countries." The stakes are extremely high. One infected animal, whose remains are rendered, powdered and mixed into feed, can infect thousands of other animals, and the thousands of people who eat them.
All the British nvCJD victims express a genetic trait shared by 38% of the British population and all bovines. Jun Tateishi, professor emeritus of Japan's Kyushu University and an authority on prion study, explains, "Basically, there are differences in genes. . . between humans and animals. Humans have three types of [paired] gene structures: methionine, valine and a combined type. On the other hand, a cow has only the methionine type," which apparently enables the effective transmission of BSE prions to humans carrying the same methionine pairing. "What we should note is that 91.6% of Japanese have the methionine gene type. Compared to British people, the rate is overwhelmingly high. I can't say so for sure yet, but my opinion is that Japanese are about 2.5 times more likely to get mad-cow disease than British people." No test for this genetic trait is available; the other two variants (for pairs of amino acids at Codon 129 on the short arm of human Chromosome 20) might simply effect longer incubation periods in the rest of the population.
An Indestructible Protein
A Different US Strain?
But what if America has been harboring a different and stealthy strain of BSE all along, with a corresponding variant of CJD, and neither were being detected by current methodology? "I don't expect the British strain of mad-cow disease to be much of a problem here," says expert Dr. Tom Pringle, a molecular biologist and founder of the astonishingly extensive Official Mad Cow Website (mad-cow.org), and whose comments have appeared in mad-cow articles in the New York Times. "The main fear is that our own cattle may carry a different strain of the disease that is distinct from the British strain." TSEs are known to exist in numerous strains within a single species; sheep scrapie has at least 20 variants.
In Britain, speculates Pringle, "The top level of government itself does not know--nor want to know--the scope of the epidemic. This is to establish 'plausible deniability.' " It would appear the US is also burying its head in the sand.
The evidence for epidemics of both BSE and CJD is persuasive:
When Will We Get the Test?
A urine test developed by Israeli researchers at the Department of Neurology at Hadassah University Hospital, described June 21, 2001 in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, promises to fulfill the need for a simple TSE test for live human and animal subjects. (The bad news is the researchers note that the presence of infectious prions in urine indicates they are being widely dispersed in soil, which has been experimentally shown to preserve prion infectivity over a period of years.) However, it is unclear how and when a viable CJD test will be released. In Britain, the expected demand from millions of panicked individuals, concerned they may have a horrible brain-wasting disease, may delay screening as public policy for dealing with the results is formulated. A finding of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of cases, as has been projected by some researchers, could drastically alter British society. Already, several cases of suicide by the "worried well"--persons convinced they were developing CJD--have already been recorded in Britain.
British public health officials have been widely castigated for incompetence, delays and cover-ups in dealing with the BSE/CJD crisis. A crucial five-year study into whether British sheep have BSE was admitted ruined in mid-2001 by cross-contamination with bovine material, and in the latest cover-up, according to BBC News, October 21, 2001, the costly error wasn't announced until three months after its discovery.
The slow responses of Britain, the USA and other nations to the AIDS crises are recalled by relatives of CJD victims, who hope this legacy of statistical obfuscation, delays in test availability and poor dissemination of prevention information will not be repeated. Although Britain may be the first nation where widespread CJD testing occurs, testing in Japan, the USA and other nations will surely follow. It remains unclear which governments will promote or downplay the importance of CJD screening. With CJD as with BSE, not looking is not finding.
Surgical instruments are at high risk of transmitting the infection, as autoclave steam sterilization does not neutralize infectious prions. Blood, blood products, bovine extracts and transplant organs such as brain dura matter and corneas are not usually screened for CJD, although in Britain and around the world infected organ recipients, who developed symptoms sometimes decades after treatment, have been traced to unwitting donors later found to have CJD, sometimes years after surgery. Effective prion sterilization protocols are not in wide use, and disposable surgical instruments are now used in many British procedures. It is inevitable that worldwide sterilization protocols will undergo drastic modification in the face of the prion.
A Rendered Disaster
Feeding mammalian protein to ruminants was authoritatively banned in the UK in 1989. In August 1997 the US FDA tardily issued weak regulations addressing this common practice. Consumers Union's Hanson explained the US ban: "All they said is that you've got to label it 'Do not feed to cattle and other ruminants.' Farmers can walk in a feed store and still buy it. Nobody asks, 'Are you feeding it to cattle or pigs?' They have to keep records of where the material came from for one year, for a disease with an average incubation period of five years. It's a joke. The way the rule is written, you can take scrapie-infested sheep, CWD-infested deer and BSE-infested animals and legally put that in animal feed and give it to pigs, chickens--anything but ruminants-- as long as it's labeled. That's outrageous." USDA feed rule compliance among America's thousands of livestock farmers is virtually impossible to effectively monitor or enforce.
Incredibly, Hanson noted in 1999, "The new thing is to feed calves spray-dried bovine plasma. It's hardly processed, so you're not knocking down the infectivity--and you can put it right in the feed." But calves are not the only hapless recipients; Hanson believes the industry is likely feeding cows "a huge amount of bovine blood products. Legally, you can take any blood product from cattle and feed it to cows. I've been told that cows won't eat feed with more than ten percent blood, because they can taste it, and that chickens will eat feed with up to thirty-five percent blood." Blood has been shown capable of containing infectious prions.
What Goes Around, Comes Around
Perhaps most repugnant, thousands of tons of fermented chicken manure are fed back to millions of U.S. cows each year, in a bizarre loop of inexpensive husbandry. Hanson and Pringle believe that "cow to chicken manure to cow" could turn out to be a BSE vector path; infectious prions apparently survive ingestion and could plausibly make the round-trip on this perverse journey.
As for the question of whether fowl can actually contract TSEs from livestock, the issue has "not really ever been investigated," says Pringle. "No one wanted to know, because so much cattle bone meal is fed to chickens. However, the chicken prion has a strong similarity to the mammalian amyloidogenic region, so it is theoretically possible."
It remains possible that all domestic animals may indeed be susceptible to TSE infection. According to Hanson, the USDA has "functionally ignored the potential TSE in pigs." Their very short factory-farm life span of six to eight months might hide any symptoms of TSE, which usually spends several years incubating in mammals. Dr. Paul Brown, a Senior Investigator for the National Institutes of Health and the author and coauthor of numerous TSE studies, has also indicated that poultry and especially pigs could harbor TSEs and pass them on to humans. "It's speculation," Brown has acknowledged, "but I am perfectly serious."
Pigs experimentally inoculated have developed BSE, and a suspected outbreak of porcine spongiform encephalopathy occurred near Albany, NY in 1997. A 1973 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology discovered that 10 of 38 CJD patients ate hog brains.
Big Beef and USDA
With America's sacred cow at stake, many doubt the USDA will voluntarily reveal the discovery of any BSE-infected cows--which would lead to certain market collapse and public panic. Dr. Michael Gregor, a physician who was one of the earliest critics of the US's handling of the BSE threat and the Webmaster of the successor to Pringle's Mad-Cow site http://www.purefood.org/madcow.htm, points out the "USDA has a conflict of interest, as the agency is responsible both for consumer safety and the promotion of American agriculture, of which meat is the primary industry." He notes that industry groups have successfully lobbied against changes in the USDA's research program to accommodate the possibility that BSE is already present in the US.
In the absence of sufficient inspectors and vigorous monitoring, the agency puts its trust in the beef industry to implement its rules. Allegations that the relationship between the two entities is overly cozy were fortified with the appointment of President Bush's USDA staff. On Feb. 11, 2001 the New York Times reported, "Although they have had a record year, cattle ranchers in the United States now face growing anxiety over mad-cow disease... which could drive down beef prices. But last week, they triumphed when Ann M. Veneman, the new agriculture secretary, named Dale Moore, a lobbyist for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, as her chief of staff. Charles P. Schroeder, the association's chief executive, said the cattle industry was investing heavily in food safety and looking forward to working with its former advocate."
The next day, the New York Times followed with a front-page article describing the lapses: "Large numbers of companies involved in manufacturing animal feed are not complying with regulations meant to prevent the emergence and spread of mad-cow disease in the United States.... All products that contain rendered cattle or sheep must have a label that says, 'Do not feed to ruminants....' Manufacturers must also have a system to prevent ruminant products from being commingled with other rendered material."
The issue of monitoring America's thousands of cattle farmers, the end-users of rendered feed, has not been addressed by the Food and Drug Administration, which primarily monitors interstate commerce. Brain and spinal cord tissue are the primary--but not only--reservoirs of infectious material in humans and animals. Current USDA and FDA regulations are designed to prevent this material from ending up on the American dinner plate, but the automatic meat-recovery (AMR) systems in wide use at modern slaughterhouses, which mechanically strip the spine of flesh, routinely include banned material in the meat. The USDA and the federal Food Safety and Inspection Service have both found spinal-cord fragments and nervous-system tissue in AMR meat samples. It has also been shown that, upon impact on the skull, pneumatic slaughterhouse stun guns can force bovine brain matter into the bloodstream and edible tissues.
On August 10, 2001 the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the USDA to ban AMR "meat" from the human food supply. Warning that cattle are better protected from Mad Cow disease than people, CSPI Food Safety Director Caroline Smith DeWaal stated, "Machines that strip meat from bones provide the best pathway for BSE to get into human food. While the Food and Drug Administration in 1997 banned the use of processed cattle parts in making cattle feed, USDA has not taken adequate precautions to protect the human food supply. U.S. cattle aren't allowed to eat cattle spinal cord--and neither should people."
The CSPI press release notes, "AMR meat paste typically is used in the production of hundreds of millions of pounds of hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza toppings, and taco fillings, and although USDA has asked companies to remove spinal cord from the spinal column and neck bones before they enter the machines, the agency rarely checks the industry's compliance. Since 1998, USDA has tested approximately 100 samples of AMR meat for spinal cord. Of those, nine samples tested positive for this central nervous system tissue."
"Although the department [of Agriculture] classifies the tissues as being 'not meat,' their presence in a meat product is not a violation of food safety laws," notes Lance Gay ironically in the Sun Herald, August 7, 2001. "Much of the mechanically separated meat is sold to the school-lunch program, which the department also administers."
The Zoo Loop
"The finding is bad news for people living in Britain who fear that a human form of mad cow disease, called new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or C.J.D., may have similar underpinnings."
"This is a huge scandal because it potentially affects the survival of many of the world's primate species," commented Tom Pringle on the PNAS study. "It also suggests very strongly that the nvCJD epidemic will indeed be a 'plague of biblical proportions,' " quoting a warning given by prominent neurogeneticist John Collinge, a member of the British government's Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee.
Got Mad Milk?
Supplements, Vaccines and Blood
Numerous dietary supplements containing glandular material, brains and other bovine ingredients are also at high risk. "Velvet Antler" capsules from General Nutrition Centers and many other retailers "come from the growing antlers of elk and can contain infectious agents," says Hanson. "They're filled with nerve tissue and blood. I wouldn't want to be the one to be experimented on." "It's just insane not to have greater safeguards" for supplements, Dr. Paul Brown, chairman of the FDA's advisory committee on mad-cow disease, told the Times. "The FDA is toothless."
The American Red Cross, which collects half the U.S. blood supply without testing for CJD, now bans Americans who have spent three months in Britain or one year elsewhere in Europe from giving blood. The strict ban has created a predicted national shortage of blood, especially in New York City, where 25% of the red cell supply was until recently imported from FDA-approved European blood banks. The Red Cross estimates that the current ban will cut nationwide blood donations by 6%.
In the absence of strict government regulations, some medical organizations have voluntarily recalled large lots of fractionated blood products containing donations from people later found to have CJD, usually after some have reached recipients. Over the past 10 years, at least $100 million worth of plasma products have reportedly been destroyed.
Many drugs are derived from cattle, including growth hormones from pituitary glands, adrenaline products, cortisone, insulin for diabetics and medications for the treatment of stomach ulcers. Thromboplastin, a common blood coagulant used in surgery, is derived from bovine brains. Pituitary extracts from Mad Cows (as well as human donors with CJD) have been traced as the cause of CJD infection in recipients.
"The thing that worries me is the immunization of the children," says Pringle. "Every kid in the United States can't go to school without their shots... They're growing vaccines out of fetal-calf serum. Then you're injecting four-year-old children--which is much worse than eating, 100,000 times more effective. Every schoolchild in the UK has already been immunized with vaccine made from serum from infected bovines."
Mad Deer, Sad People
McEwen's situation was graphically reported by Mark Kennedy in the Ottawa Citizen the day before he died:
For nearly two years McEwen had donated blood plasma, which was processed by Bayer into fractionated blood products in Clayton, NC, then shipped to 46 countries around the globe. "The scope of this is breathtaking," Tom Pringle says of the decision to release McEwen's blood. "You've got a time bomb ticking in millions and millions of people. And as they become donors, it spreads further." Of the infected deer which almost certainly led to McEwen's death, Pringle is unequivocal: "I think they have scrapie. Most cases trace back to Ft. Collins, Colorado at the Foothills Research Station, an experimental facility which was contaminated," a contention shared by several other CWD researchers. Wild animals might also contract the disease by raiding contaminated feed meant for livestock.
Time Will Tell
Pringle is not optimistic. In the US, "it would be a wrenching experience to totally get away from the bovine economy, and realistically, they're only going to take half-measures. It's like a joke now to talk about containment. It's like locking the barn door after the horse is gone. WTO, NAFTA, has really helped globalize CJD. You don't know where your sutures are coming from, your shampoo, your sunscreen. The Pandora's box has been opened."
In the absence of a CJD test, the world can only guess the extent of the problem. Quoted by the CBS Evening News on Jan. 31, Prusiner, "when asked if, in his darkest moment he thought that this is the plague of the 21st Century, said, 'I don't need a dark moment to wonder if that's the case, because everybody's wondering that, not just me.' "Interviews with Dr. Tom Pringle and Dr. Michael Hanson were conducted on several occasions between 1998-2001.
From EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRONG, The Disinformation Company, (June) 2002