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Mad Cow is Baaaaaack

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Headlines about a fourth US mad cow discovered this week are quick to point out the "food supply" is safe and that milk does not transmit the dread disease.

Not only can variant CJD, the human version of mad cow from eating infected food, spark panic in hospitals, health care settings and mortuaries, it can wipe out the US beef industry in days. This week's announcement has already cost the US export business. Ninety-eight percent of US beef exports evaporated within 24 hours when the US's first mad cow was discovered in Washington state in 2003.

No wonder state and federal health agencies continue to protect the identity of the Texas and Alabama farms where the next two mad cows, after the Washington cow, came from. Why should a meat operation suffer just because it risked the lives of people who ate its product? Why shouldn't it be able to continue selling its wholesome products?

mad cow

State and federal officials have a long history of smoothing over mad cow outbreaks to help beef producers. "Texas has had one variant CJD case," the Texas Department of State Health Services Infectious Disease Control Unit assured the public on its website in 2008, after a November mad cow scare. " Investigators have concluded that the patient was a former resident of the UK where exposure was likely to have occurred."

But that's not what the press said. When Irene Gore of Palestine, TX died in 2001 the Associated Press' headline was, "Disease Like Mad Cow Kills Woman." And her own husband blamed the calf valve that was surgically placed in her heart in 1979. "She had been carrying around bovine material for 20 years," said Mack Gore.

Parents of Karnack, TX Green Beret Sgt. James Alford, who died in 2008, also believed he had "the 'variant' form of CJD caused by eating brains or nervous system tissue from an infected cow," said the AP when he was diagnosed with CJD in 2003 while in the service. "They worry he may have got it from eating sheep brains locals served to soldiers as an honor in Oman," said the AP.

Texas has been especially involved in the mad cow scares. In addition to producing one of the two "homegrown" mad cows, more than 1,200 head of Texas cattle were given "feed laced with ruminant byproducts for cattle" by Purina Mills, the US' largest livestock feed producer, reported UPI.

"We don't have mad cow disease in the United States. Since the meat and bone meal originated from U.S. cattle, they also do not have mad cow disease," smoothed over Dr. Konrad Eugster, the director of the Texas Veterinary Diagnostic Lab at Texas A&M University. Though the Purina Mills action is a violation of US safeguards, "at this time it is not a public health concern."

When a woman was hospitalized Amarillo in 2008 with possible variant CJD, fears were similarly assuaged. In fact Ted McCollum, beef cattle specialist with the Amarillo office of Texas AgriLife Extension was so sure it was nothing, he called the woman's case "sporadic"-not from eating infected food- before tests were even done, to quiet tumbling beef futures markets at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Expect similar protection of beef markets not food consumers this week.

Martha Rosenberg's first book, Born With a Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks, and Hacks Pimp the Public Health, with the complete history of mad cow disease in the US, has just been released by Prometheus Books.

Martha Rosenberg is a columnist and cartoonist, who writes about public health Read more stories by Martha Rosenberg.

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