Attack of the killer prions

Mary Rodgers is a Sacramento writer and past president of the Sacramento Vegetarian Society

How’s this for a B-movie plot? Prions, killer proteins that can’t be destroyed, either by blistering heat or by any known disinfectant, turn good proteins bad. The bad proteins enter the food chain when infected animals are processed into feed that is foisted on captive herbivores. Now picture mad scientists devising more ways to turn cows into carnivores and ask yourself, “Why on earth?” Cut to greedy factory-farm execs looking to turn waste products into profits, and there’s your answer.

But this is deadly serious: Mad-cow disease, so far detected in one U.S. “downer” dairy cow, is here. It shouldn’t be. Feeding English cattle such unnatural “food” resulted in an epidemic of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and prions passed into the food chain. The human version, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (like BSE, always fatal), followed, despite assurances that BSE wouldn’t cross the species barrier. That barrier has failed numerous species, including minks that contracted transmissible mink encephalopathy—back in the 1980s—after exposure to brain tissue from downer cows.

Feeding dead cows and other ruminants back to cows was, after years of intense pressure, finally banned a few years ago, but there aren’t nearly enough inspectors to ensure compliance. It took a downer cow on our doorstep for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to close many, but still not all, of the animal-feed-to-herbivore loopholes, such as calf-milk replacer that contains, incredibly, cow’s blood; and chicken excrement and other such appetizing tidbits that are still added to cattle feed. Under the new rules, downer cows are still OK for cosmetics and household products.

These surreal practices continue because profits trump common sense. Human health and animal health aren’t considered. Meanwhile, the USDA offers a paucity of facts combined with excess spin as it straddles conflicting roles of promoting and assuring the safety of agricultural products.

The nightmarish cruelty of industrial agriculture, the massive environmental damage caused by unwise agricultural practices, and the major role that animal protein plays in human disease have led millions away from a meat-based diet already. A possible BSE outbreak adds a new level of anxiety. You can take one simple step that will protect you, your family, animals and the environment: Stop eating animals. There are thousands of delicious, nutritious plant-based foods.