Sunday, January 18, 2004
Eeeeew. That is soooo gross and that's not just my cultural food prejudice talking either. I can't think of anything riskier to eat except maybe fugu. Bekki posted a link to a story about fried brain sandwiches and how the people who eat them are unfazed by the whole mad cow thing. Again, yuck. Unless you are starving or living a subsistence kind of lifestyle there is no excuse to eat brains or intestines. Brains are a big disease factor. Intestines store and process shit. Kidneys filter crap out of your body. So does the liver and the gallbladder. Don't give me culture as an excuse. You can get vitamins and protein cheaper and cleaner. Yuck.
We studied this very intensively in my medical anthro class, back before this stuff was in the news at all over here.
Quick science lesson:
The structure that causes mad cow is called a prion. A prion is a protein that somehow became misfolded. That protein, in the course of cellular housekeeping, then goes on to cause other proteins to become misfolded. The misfolded proteins can't do their job and they build up like plaque in the nervous system, killing cells that they attatch to and strangling those nearby.
The first recognition of prion-caused disease occured in New Guinea. Indigenous people there practiced ritual cannibalism. (They consumed their dead.) The disease was called Kuru. An anthropologist noticed the characteristics of the disease, it was studied, a hypothesis was proposed, and experiments successfully transmitted the disease by putting diseased tissue into chimp brains. The disease normally lasted 9 months from initial symptoms to death.
Later they discovered that the disease agent was the misfolded protein known as a prion. Several other animal and human diseases are caused by prions. Scrapie, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, a variant of CJD, Chronic Wasting Disease, Mad Cow, and a host of others yet to be discovered.
Creutzfeldt-Jakob is the big human prion disease. It occurs spontaneously, or it can run in families, it can also be transmitted via fluids and tissues.
Variant CJD is what humans get after eating diseased animals, (assumed to be cows although there's no guarantee that other meat is safe.) The normal "natural" rate of spontaneous CJD is 1 in a million. Current stats are much higher. There isn't currently a blood test that can diagnose CJD or vCJD. Late-stage brain scans show a different distribution of the holes in the brain between CJD and vCJD but at that point in the disease process, there's not really any difference. (Actually, the woman in the other bed at the hospital this week sounded like she might very well be coming down with mad cow. She had the palsy and the difficult walking.) We don't actually know the current rate of infection. That should scare everyone.
The brain is the organ most noticeably affected by the disease but the entire nervous system is considered unsafe. It is entirely possible for bone, bone marrow, tendons, ligaments, or even just your average filet to contain disease prions. Prions, being a protein, are fairly unaffected by standard disinfection procedures. We've seen blood transfusions added to the list of transmission vectors in the past few months.
"Pickling in concentrated formalin, autoclaving at high temperatures, bombardment with intense radiation, and exposure to powerful ultra-violet light all destroy nucleic acids -- and inactivate known viruses. Yet these treatments have no effect on the ability of the T.S.E. infectious agent to cause disease in a new host."
The way that livestock gets infected is predictable enough. Humans in our desire for profit, fed dead diseased animals to the live healthy ones because it's a cheap way to bulk up animal feed.
"Cows and sheep remained plant eaters throughout human history -- until the advent of certain modern agricultural practices. Not all that long ago, farmers began feeding cows and sheep with dietary supplements containing rendered body parts of other cows and sheep. This dramatic change in the domestic animal food chain effectively turned both sheep and cows into partial carnivores (if not cannibals). While rendered animal-part supplements provided additional protein that encouraged more rapid growth of cows, they also opened a completely new series of doors through which the infectious agent of T.S.E could first cross from sheep into cattle, then sweep through cattle herds with extraordinary speed and efficiency, and finally jump another species barrier into humans."That practice was banned in 1997. The ban doesn't mean that it doesn't still happen, as the current scare can attest. It's also illegal to send "downer" animals (too sick to walk) to be processed for meat but as we just saw, that still happens too.
(I just love humans, gee, organic farming worked for thousands of years, lets change the practice of farming in a few decades and see what happens. What you mean that caused all sorts of new diseases and poisoned a lot of people even as it staved off the 60's predictions of mass-starvation? Hey I have an idea, it's this new system called organic farming. The affluent can eat the pesticide-free, chemical-free, hormone-free, antibiotic-free food, and the poor will have enough to eat. Isn't that great?)
Current theory states that cows under 30 months old are safe. This is bullshit. Assuming that the cow's mother was unexposed and assuming that the cow has never been exposed, then it's very likely that the cow is safe. But as we have just seen, all it takes is one ignorant or dishonest farmer, and that cow is in our food supply.
Now I'm sure you've all seen the publications that say your hamburger may contain meat from dozens of animals. Our mass-production food system ensures that. Add to that the fact that normal sterilization doesn't always work. Add to that the fact that no one has determined the load of prions necessary for infection....
Another chilling factor is the existence of Advanced Meat Recovery systems. (The existence of which always reminds me of Mr. Burns and the Lil' Lisa slurry.) To get that last 2% of the meat left on the carcass dontchaknow.
What all that adds up to is a very reasonable caution of beef.
We actually have one of the world experts on the subject on the U of M vet faculty. He started just before I was learning about all this stuff. I went to listen to him speak and took his opinions seriously. He still eats beef. I still eat beef. I'm not about giving it up or getting psycho about it. It's unfortunately possible that either you or I already have it, not likely but possible. With that in mind, just as I wash the pesticides and fertilizer off my produce, I'm careful about my beef.
I won't eat strange ground meat and I don't think anyone else should either. I do and will eat fast-food ground beef because the records and documentation for mega-corporation herds are actually much better than for any others. Solid chunks of meat that don't contain or lie next to bone should be ok. Off-brand meatballs... I wouldn't. If I wanted ground beef I'd go to Widmers meat market (the best in town) and have them grind it for me. It's really not any more expensive or any much greater effort to minimize your chances of getting mad cow. You could also take the organic route and not worry about hormones and pesticides, but organic beef really is more expensive.
Now, knowing all that, would anyone in their right mind eat a nice tasty fried cow brain?
Update: Apparently they only just found a reliable way to dispose of the bodies of infected animals. They put them in a thing known as a digester which is really just a giant pressure cooker (or autoclave) with a bunch of lye. Considering that lye is the active ingredient in Drano, and that it'll eat the skin right off your bones, I'm not surprised.
. . .
The future is here!
. . .
. . .