Contrary to what the public has been told, the origin of mad cow
disease is not really tainted feed. While it appears to be true that
feeding cattle the neural tissue of cows with brain-wasting bovine
spongiform encephalopathy does spread mad cow, the source of the
disease lies in the greed of an industry that has consistently put
cost-cutting measures ahead of the welfare of the animals.
Cows are herbivores. They were never meant to stand knee-deep in
manure-soaked stockyards chewing the diseased brains of other
animals. But the history of the livestock industry is a lesson in
how to save money, despite the appalling consequences for animals
and human health.
Before the 1940s and the advent of antibiotics and other disease
prevention methods, cattle ranchers were largely at the mercy of
diseases like tuberculosis and brucellosis. When these devastating
ailments were nearly eradicated, the new trend of factory farming,
in which animals were seen as inanimate units of production, took
hold. Cram animals together in the smallest possible space. Put a
hundred dairy cows on less than an acre. Shove five hens in a cage
that would house a hamster in your child's bedroom. Stick pigs in
slatted stalls above stinking vats of their own waste. They aren't
animals; they are cogs in the machinery of modern agriculture.
The diseases that would have run rampant under such conditions in
the old days could now be held at bay with huge quantities of
antibiotics. Today, most of the antibiotics produced in the United
States are mixed into farmed animal feed. The huge number of animals
who die anyway under such disgusting conditions are merely factored
into the profit and loss statements. Besides, the "downer" animals -
the cows and pigs who are too ill, tumor-ridden or injured to walk
into the slaughterhouse - can be ground up into burgers or pet food,
or rendered into feed for their fellow species.
As a consequence, billions of animals have lived and died in
misery, without even a few minutes of joy, ever.
Now it has come back to haunt us. Cheap and easy meat at the
grocery store has sent heart disease rates soaring. Children whose
parents took them to a fast-food restaurant died in agony after
eating E. coli-contaminated hamburgers. Salmonella, listeria and
other deadly bacteria have resulted in the recall of millions of
pounds of meat and sicken tens of thousands of people every
And mad cow disease is in America. For a decade, People for the
Ethical Treatment of Animals has called for more testing of cattle
neural tissue, an end to feeding the remains of animals to other
animals, a program to relieve downer animals of their suffering,
better conditions for all farmed animals, vegetarian options in
school lunch programs, and above all, honesty from the livestock
industry about what they really do to animals. The cattle industry
has battled us every step of the way. As recently as last month,
cattle rancher lobbyists helped defeat a Senate bill that would have
prohibited downer cows - who are most likely to be showing symptoms
of mad cow disease - from going into the human food supply.
For years after the practice was banned in England, the USDA
continued to allow the feeding of cattle and sheep to other cattle
and sheep. Even today it is legal to feed the blood of cows to other
cows. And it is legal to feed cow neural tissue to pigs and chicken
and then feed these animals' neural tissue back to cows.
It is true that more Americans will die of heart disease than
from the human version of mad cow disease. But this is small comfort
to the families of the 140-plus victims of the disease, who watched
their loved ones gradually lose their memory and then all ability to
care for themselves as the disease ate holes in their brains.
If we learn nothing else from the cow in Washington state, we
should understand that mistreating animals does not benefit people.
If the farmed animal industry can't feel true compassion in their
hearts for animals, perhaps the deadly consequences of their
practices will persuade the rest of us to demand change.