Otterman speaks... (2003-2007)
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Otterman speaks...

Cycling, macintosh, natural history and life in Singapore - Archives

List of Categories : travel * museum * cycling * Singapore Naturalist * science * kakis * mangroves * movies * mac and the internet * meow * NUS * life in Singapore * lit * world *

Sun 28 Dec 2003

Oprah's Mad Cow episode

Category : world

The world was chilled to see images of a cow struggling to keep its balance in the mid-90s, and the news that humans could suffer a similar fate. Research suggested humans eating processed meat products that include infected brain or nerve tissue can get infected and apparently 143 people in Britain have died. The cause? Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), the human equivalent of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or "mad cow disease".

Trouble recalling any of this? Get a quick update from this AP report, "Rogue Protein Lurks Behind Mad Cow Infection in Cattle and Humans", AP, 24 Dec 2003 and see the extensive reports at UK's The Guardian Unlimited's BSE Special".

Since that was then perceived to be a European problem, the American beef industry profited. But now, the first case of BSE has been reported from the US in Washington State, and Singapore, at least, has essentially banned US beef imports for six years.

Any of this surprising? An episode on Oprah in 1996 was so impactful, I can remember the scenes even today. Her guest, Howard Lyman, a rancher-turned-vegetarian campaigner, described how U.S. cattle were being fed ground-up cattle parts.

He had just returned from the UK, giving testimony to the famous McLibel case and in court there he stated that "14 per cent of all cows by volume are basically ground up and fed back to other cows".

An open-mouthed audience including Oprah, probably with visions of grass eating cows on sunny fields, were shocked beyond belief! He further declared that this raised the risks of a mad cow disease epidemic which would "make AIDS look like the common cold."

Dr Gary Weber, a spokesman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association at the show fueled the issue by his inability to provide a meaningful defense. And then Oprah made the (now famous) response that Lyman's comments "just stopped me cold from eating another burger." A subsequent show to moderate the statements didn't help and with public confidence in beef lowered considerably, costing the industry millions, a rancher eventually sued Oprah and Lyman.

Round one was won in 1998, but eventually, after almost 6 years, the final lawsuit against Oprah and Howard was "dismissed with prejudice" in 2002.

Robin Cook's 1997 fiction novel "Toxin' illustrates the shocking state of affairs in slaughter houses in the US. And the regulatory system is described as having the fox guard the henhouse!

Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation (2001) suggests the same and more. Just read the Rolling Stones review for a glimpse.

An Amazon editorial review says that "Schlosser's investigation reveals the almost complete lack of federal oversight of a seemingly lawless industry. ...disturbingly similar to Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle", written in 1906: nightmare working conditions, union busting, and unsanitary practices that introduce E. coli and other pathogens into restaurants, public schools, and homes". Serious?!

Who can you believe? Certainly not the foxes - or scientists in administrative roles constrained by the economic consequences of factual information. During the whole BSE/vCJD fiasco in the UK, scientific credibility was found wanting. Read the contradictions in the Guardian's timeline of events.

So although British scientists say there is no evidence for prion (the disease agent) transmission through cow's milk, you wonder!

Will their American counterparts learn and deal with this transparently and effectively? With a cattle industry reportedly worth US$27 billion a year? This New York Times article doesn't sound promising. In fact, latest news suggests they have decided to "Blame Canada"! I wonder what Oprah and Lyman are making of all this now.

Posted at 4:26PM UTC by N. Sivasothi | permalink | , .