Mad Cows a Symptom of a Sick Food System
The discovery of yet another Canadian cow infected with BSE, or mad cowdisease, has again raised alarm bells about the safety of our beef and hasproducers worried about extended import bans to the United States. Butreally, we should be asking ourselves what caused the problem in the firstplace and how we can make our meat production safe and sustainable.
It's an issue that has become more urgent since a new report has found thateven parts of cattle that had previously been considered low risk may stillharbour the rogue proteins called "prions" that are suspected of causingvCJD, the human variant of mad cow disease.
According to a report to be published in the journal Science, researchersfound that when they induced an "inflammatory response" (the body's naturalimmune response to common illness and injury) in mice infected with theequivalent of BSE, there was an explosion of prions in the rodents' organslike the kidney and liver - organs that had been thought to be relativelyimmune to the proteins. If the same response occurs in BSE-infected cattle,then no part of the animal may be safe.
And mad cow is just one of many problems we've created through theindustrial meat production practices that have become common over the pastfew decades. Not long ago, most people purchased their meat from a butcher,who knew where his meat came from and what the animals were fed. Whenlarger supermarkets replaced small butcher shops, most of these storesstill had an in-house butcher, and animal carcasses were proudly displayedbehind glass - to be custom cut according to the customer's needs.Today, we have stepped back even more. Now, most of our meat comes instandardized, sanitized, shrink-wrapped packages in supermarket coolers, oris found already processed in luncheon meats, canned goods and frozenentrees. We've distanced ourselves so much from the source of our food thatwe no longer consider its biological origins. And when you get that faraway from something, you lose perspective.
As a result, most of us have no idea where their meat comes from or whatgoes into raising the butchered animals. In fact, high-volume factoryfarming practices are now common, where vast numbers of chickens, pigs andcattle are raised in close quarters on high-protein diets and fed largequantities of antibiotics and growth hormones to prevent them from gettingsick and make them grow faster. Family farms have a hard time competingwith these massive-scale operations.
And when the bottom line is always to cut costs and improve profit margins,then animal welfare, food safety and environmental considerations go outthe window. If producers can save money by feeding meat byproducts tocattle and essentially turning animals that are naturally herbivores intocarnivores, then that's what happens. And if society ends up with avian fluoutbreaks, BSE, antibiotic-resistant bacteria and water pollution from vastquantities of manure, then too bad for us. Industrial meat suppliers don'thave to pay for these problems - they are borne by all of society.
We do have options. First, we can eat less meat. The average Canadian eats276 grams (almost 2/3 of a pound) of meat every day. That's three times theamount recommended by the World Cancer Research Fund. Second, as consumers,we can support better farming practices by finding out where our meat comesfrom, asking for organic or natural, grass-fed beef and voicing concernsabout factory farming and other unsustainable meat production practices toour political leaders.
Ultimately for our food system to be safe and sustainable, we have toprevent problems like BSE from happening in the first place. Cleaning upthe mess afterwards is inefficient, expensive and can even prove deadly.