It seems as though our government is trying hard not to track the spread of CJD.

Several years ago, I toured the country on behalf of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Besides warning the public about the risks of mad cow disease, I urged the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to add Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (a variant of which is the human equivalent of this illness) to its list of reportable diseases. Two American studies done on patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s found that 5.5 percent and 13 percent, respectively, of those patients had in fact been suffering from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Historically, CJD has appeared in roughly one person in a million. If only a small percentage of the estimated 4.5 million Americans now diagnosed with Alzheimer’s actually have CJD, we have an epidemic on our hands. The CDC must step forward to investigate whether mad cow is jumping the species barrier and boosting the incidence of CJD.

One of the demonstrations I organized was at the federal agency’s headquarters in Atlanta; another was at the American Medical Association’s headquarters in Chicago. In both those places, I spoke with physicians and other scientists who wholeheartedly agreed that CJD should be a reportable condition. Yet it never happened. Why is the scientific community not shouting for this change? Has the incredible might of the meat industry induced those in power to turn a blind eye? It seems as though our government is trying hard not to track the spread of CJD.

If scientists have been pressured to keep silent, they’re not alone. There’s little doubt that fear has kept others from speaking out about mad cow disease. Let’s not forget what happened to Oprah Winfrey, who made the mistake of having Montana cattle-rancher-turned-vegan Howard Lyman on her show. In 1998, Winfrey and Lyman were sued by a group of Texas cattle ranchers for “knowingly making false statements about an agricultural product” on Oprah’s show. Beef prices plummeted after Mr. Lyman said it was only a matter of time before mad cow disease appeared in America. I traveled to Amarillo for the trial, and I’ll always remember a vindicated Winfrey leaving the courtroom declaring, “Free speech rocks!” Oprah had the cash to bankroll her million-dollar defense. But the cattle industry nonetheless succeeded in reminding people that speaking out against it can be very costly.

About 40 million cows were slaughtered in the U.S. last year, and only about 20,000 of them were tested for mad cow disease. Some 150,000 of those slaughtered creatures were “downers” (animals too sick to stand). Many downers, like the one that tested positive for mad cow disease, are dairy cows that are sent to slaughter as soon as their production declines. Why did the U.S. Department of Agriculture allow diseased animals to be fed to humans? And why have all legislative efforts to ban downers from the food supply failed? “I blame it on greed, greed, greed,” said U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y. “The greed of the industry, the greed of the lobbyists, and the greed of the members of Congress.” Perhaps the reason this disease is hard to find is that, rather than testing the evidence, we’ve been feeding it to humans.

After the discovery of mad cow disease in America on Dec. 23, USDA Secretary Ann Veneman hastily called a press conference. Pandering to the cattle industry while jeopardizing the health of the American people, she proclaimed that beef is safe. Exactly one week later, on Dec. 30, she announced, “Effective immediately, USDA will ban all downer cattle from the human food chain.” Do you feel she’s telling you the whole story? Do you really trust the cattle industry and their cronies at the USDA, who seem to be more concerned with economic impact and public relations than they are with public health? Are you willing to gamble your future (and your family’s) on what these spin doctors have to say?

Mad cow disease is the predictable result of treating cows as if they were machines. Livestock raised for food in America are nothing short of Frankenstein animals. They’re bred to grow quickly and are slaughtered after living only a fraction of their natural life span. Thanks to genetic manipulation and intensive production technologies, some cows now produce more than 100 pounds of milk a day — 10 times their natural output. Chickens are bred so that their upper bodies grow more than six times as fast as they normally would. Each year, millions of them die before their scheduled trip to the slaughterhouse at the age of seven weeks. That’s right: Even though they’re pumped full of antibiotics, millions of them can’t manage to survive for seven weeks! When animals are forced to live and die in grossly unnatural conditions, disease is a common outcome.

If you eat meat, you already have to worry about salmonella, E. coli, campylobacter, heart disease, stroke, cancer, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, food poisoning, etc. Now there’s mad cow disease — and who knows what new pathogens may be on the horizon? Was there ever a better time to switch to a vegetarian diet?

Stewart David is the president of Carolina Animal Action, an Asheville-based animal-rights group. He can be contacted at To see how animals are raised and slaughtered or to order a Vegetarian Starter Kit, go to

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