Published on Friday, January 9, 2004 by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Mad Cows in a World Gone Mad
by Robyn Landis
Since the Dec. 23 announcement that bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was traced to a cow in Washington state that has entered the U.S. meat supply, news sources have focused almost invariably on one question: How will this affect meat sales?
An alarm has been sounded, but for whom and for what? The answer stinks like rotten meat, but few seem to be catching a whiff.
The disgraceful truth is that health concerns are choked off by fear about what you will continue to buy. More repugnant still is how openly this has been stated, and how few seem to notice or care. It's far from the first time profits were placed over people, and surely won't be the last. But has it always been this brazen?
Try a search on any news Web site. A search on Google Dec. 29, using "mad cow disease," listed these top four headlines (with dozens of similar ones following): "Mad cow disease report shakes beef industry, restaurant chains," "McDonald's, Others Steady Despite Mad Cow," "Wendy's sales strong despite mad cow case," and "Mad cow disease likely to be costly to U.S. beef industry."
The issue, it appears, is whether meat will be as profitable tomorrow as it was yesterday. Beyond that, there is a conspicuous lack of probing into more fundamental questions.
I've not heard one interviewee take the opening "Is meat safe to eat?" by answering, "Actually, even before this incident, meat was unsafe to eat, for many reasons other than BSE. Not only because of the food-borne illnesses that sicken 38.6 million Americans annually (and kill 2,700), but even more so because of the 1.5 million deaths from heart disease, cancer and stroke every year."
The role of animal fats and meat in these conditions has been overwhelmingly established. As Neal Barnard, M.D., president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, has declared, "The beef industry has contributed to more American deaths than all the wars of this century, all natural disasters and all automobile accidents combined."
The environmental impact of meat production is equally deadly. The world's 1.3 billion head of cattle emit about 190 trillion quarts of methane gas annually -- the second-most significant contributor to the greenhouse effect (after carbon dioxide). Livestock raised for food produce 87,000 pounds of excrement per second, polluting U.S. waterways more than all other industrial sources combined. More than a third of all raw materials and fossil fuels consumed in the United States are used in animal food production. And making a pound of meat demands 2,500 to 5,000 gallons of water. (By contrast, a pound of wheat or potatoes can be grown with 25 gallons of water.)
While our nation wrings its hands over starving children, every pound of beef it consumes diverts 16 pounds of grain to cattle feed. This colossal waste of resources is offensive in a world plagued by hunger and malnutrition. Harvard nutritionist Jean Mayer estimates that reducing U.S. meat production by just 10 percent would free enough grain to feed 60 million people.
But none of this, apparently, is as newsworthy as whether McDonald's has seen a dip in sales since Dec. 23. (The answer, by the way, is no.)
Moreover, in an endless dialogue about how best to evade threats of BSE, a glaringly obvious and low-tech solution never surfaces. Fact is, one surefire protection is to stop eating meat.
But the hot topic is sales, and such realism does not sell well. Nor does it serve any interest of the industry, which seems to have the floor on this issue.
Unfortunately, the media are acting almost solely as a forum for debate about the impact of BSE on profits instead of the effects of meat production on human, animal and environmental health. This is not helping one iota to raise consciousness from what may well be the United States' most ghastly complacency.
If this crisis inspires no one to probe beyond the financial health of a rapacious industry, we are afflicted with a sickness more malevolent than Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
Listening to unabashed market analysis that dwarfs matters of human health and animal suffering, as corporate interests and government officials scramble to soothe a remarkably unruffled consumer, I think not of "mad cows." (What a clever naming convention, as if the cows are to blame!)
I see a mad world, and I feel a lonely sense of grief for its lack of humanity and common sense.
Robyn Landis is a Seattle-based author and runs a consumer-information website (www.bodyfueling.com) covering health, environmental and animals rights issues.
©1996-2004 Seattle Post-Intelligencer