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01/08/2004 Archived Entry: "Ignorance is bliss. Knowledge is power."
Posted by CKL @ 01:49 AM PST

There's been a lot of fuss lately about mad cow disease coming to the United States, and I think it's pretty damn stupid. My workplace cafeteria served steak earlier this week-- cut from free-range, grass-fed cattle-- and the chefs were disappointed that very few people went for the entree. But they bounced back with grace the next day, serving "mad cow vegetable" soup. For the record, I ate and enjoyed both dishes.

The thing is, none of us is really at any more risk of eating diseased beef than we were a few months ago, or even a year ago, probably. Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is still a poorly understood phenomenon, as evidenced by New Scientist's BSE and vCJD FAQ:

An official report into BSE published in October 2000 favours the idea that [BSE] started in a single cow which developed the disease spontaneously through a unique, random mutation in its PrPC gene... Originally, scientists suggested that the disease originated when cows ate feed containing an unusual form of scrapie, the sheep equivalent of BSE. Now, ironically, the scrapie theory is gaining favour again...

Although no-one has proved it [my emphasis -CKL], most experts suspect that it spread to us when we ate meat products infected with [BSE]...

[N]o one knows whether there'll be an epidemic of vCJD, or how big it will be. Or whether it will come in waves several years apart. Optimists hope that the early precautions might have saved millions of people. They hope that the present wave of vCJD has already peaked at just over 100 deaths and that will be that. Pessimists predict that thousands will die, possibly in waves to come.

"vCJD" stands for "variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease," the human equivalent of BSE. And it occurs spontaneously in one out of every million people. In case you haven't been paying attention, one in a million is also about the probability that you've eaten any of the beef from the one cow that was confirmed to have been contaminated with BSE. Funny how that works.

Yes, the government is protecting the meat industry. They're citizens, too. Yes, the USDA has been lax about testing and enforcement. Tell me again, how much do you love paying federal taxes? You can't have it both ways. And what does it say about you that you didn't even care what we fed our cattle, until you started thinking your life might be in danger?

Ultra-left-wing, anti-beef propaganda is easy to find, if you're into that sort of thing. But how about some even-handed analysis from a nice Jewish boy?

Dr. Fred Cohen, a professor of pharmacology at the University of California in San Francisco ... said the risk was low.

"One can derive a fair bit of comfort from statistics and epidemiology," he said. "Put the question into context. When there were 60,000 to 80,000 infected cows in the U.K., approximately 150 people out of 60 million developed the disease," he said. "One cow is not likely to be translated into any cases" in the United States, he said.

-- New York Times, December 24, 2003

It may not be a causal relationship, but let's just correlate for a moment: 70,000 known infected cattle is to 2.5 infected humans per million, as 1 infected cow is to... 0.00003 infected humans per million. Okay, so only about 20,000 of 35 million cows are tested annually in the US for BSE. Do you really believe that a significant number of the untested cows are infected, and the USDA is winning the devil's lottery every time they pick a cow to test? Let's apply some common sense here, please.

We'd all be better off with a little more math and science in our lives, and quite a bit less irrational FUD: fear, uncertainty, and doubt. For my money, that's the most important lesson we could learn from this mess.

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