Beef Controversy: Mad Cow Disease

Michael Pollan, a New York Times Magazine writer, reflects on beef production and the mad cow controversy.

| April/May 2004

It's hard to say whether an American hamburger was appreciably less safe to eat the day after a Holstein cow tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in Washington state last December than it was the day before, but it had sure gotten less appetizing. The news cracked open a door on the industrial kitchen where America's meat is prepared, and what we glimpsed on the other side was enough to send even the heartiest diner to the vegetarian entree or the fish special.

We learned, for example, that the beef we have been eating (until the USDA's sudden change of heart about the practice) might consist in whole or part of meat from a "downer cow," an animal so sick and hobbled that it must be dragged to the slaughterhouse with chains or pushed by a front-end loader. Then, before finding its way into a frankfurter, the carcass of that animal is often subjected to an "Advanced Meat Recovery System" that is so efficient at stripping flesh from spinal cords that the chances are good (35 percent, in one study) that the resultant frankfurter contains "central nervous system tissue" - precisely the tissue most likely to contain the infectious prions thought to communicate BSE.

So: We have been eating downers and really picking their bones clean. And what did these animals eat in turn? Many of us were surprised to learn that despite the FDA's 1997 ban on feeding cattle cattle meat and bone meal, feedlots continue to rear these herbivores as cannibals. When young, they routinely receive "milk replacer" made from bovine blood; later, their daily ration is apt to contain rendered cattle fat as well as feed made from ground-up pigs and chickens — pigs and chickens that may themselves have grown up on a diet of ground-up cows. But the grossest feedlot dish we read about in our newspapers over breakfast has to be "chicken litter," the nasty stuff shoveled out of chicken houses — bedding, feathers and overlooked chicken feed. Since this chicken feed may contain the same bovine meat and bone meal that FDA rules prohibit in cattle feed, those rules are, in effect, all but guaranteed to break themselves. Oh, yes, I forgot to mention one of the ingredients in chicken litter: chicken feces, which the U.S. cattle industry regards as a source of protein.

Whatever else it is — nutritious, economical, the polar opposite of wasteful — you can't help feeling that the convoluted new food chain that industrial agriculture has devised for the animals we eat (and thus for us) is, to be unscientific for a moment, disgusting.

I know, I'm offering an aesthetic judgment of a system designed not for beauty but for efficiency. Protein is protein, goes the logic of this system, whether you find it in an animal muscle, a soybean or a chicken dropping: This reductionism is the world-beating formula that drives industrial agriculture, and it works, up to a point. By feeding the absolute cheapest forms of energy and protein to animals it treats as machines, the industrial food chain has succeeded in making the protein we eat unimaginably cheap. Just look at what you can get for a buck or two at Wal-Mart or McDonald's.

But there is a problem. By the reductive logic that rules our food system, cannibalism should be as legitimate a way of eating as any other: It's all just protein, right? Yet the great unlearned lesson of BSE and other similar brain-wasting diseases is that, at the level of species or ecosystems, it isn't quite true that protein is protein. Eating the protein of your own species, for example, carries special risks. The Fore people of New Guinea were nearly wiped out by kuru, a disease which bears a striking resemblance to BSE; they spread it among themselves by ritually eating the brains of their dead kin.

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