Mad Cow Disease Outbreak Could Be Disaster for California

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) goes by the street name ‘mad cow disease,’ appropriately, however morbid, because BSE-infected cows seem to go crazy. It’s an insidious disease – hidden during a long incubation period – that literally eats away at the cow’s brain. And it has sprung up in California.

The effect on the animal is horrifying. Among the horrors already inflicted on an animal in modern agriculture, this still ranks as an undignified death.

BSE is concerning for two primary reasons. BSE devastates the cattle industry, claiming the lives of hundreds of animals but also indirectly causing the preventative cull of thousands of others. At the height of the largest BSE epidemic (during the 1990s in the United Kingdom), millions were slaughtered to contain the disease. The damage done to the industry’s reputation took years to recover at the cost of lost jobs, profits, and existential threats to smaller farms that weren’t able to take the financial hit.

But of greater worry is the potential for a BSE to infect humans through the consumption of infected beef as Creutzfeld-Jakob disease. Its symptoms are chilling: rapid onset dementia, personality changes, and the inevitable and invariable wasting away of the brain. There is no known cure and has claimed the lives of hundreds.

With BSE cropping up in California, the direct fear is that BSE can potentially devastate the food chain. Officials have already rushed to assure the American public that the public at large is in no immediate danger – the California BSE case was confirmed in a dairy cow with no immediate links to a human diet. But it should be noted that given BSE’s long incubation period – up to 8 years in certain cases – and the virulence of BSE, there is a marginal, if not immediate,danger of it having spread beyond dairy cows and to animals destined for human consumption.

But if BSE is confirmed beyond that singular case, then the next concern should be the forthcoming mandated preventative cull. The California cattle and dairy industries are billion dollar concerns with millions of animals. Recent ad campaigns have tried to turn the American public – and a growing international market – on to the merits of Californian farms. 

But to a large extent, it is these same farms – often large, intensive concerns – that may have provided the perfect incubation grounds for BSE. Crowded, pestilent, hellish, with diseases often only contained with copious amounts of antibiotics, such factory farms are often the perfect breeding grounds for disease. (Such conditions were blamed for the earlier – and devastating – British epidemic.) In certain respects, this is a disease caused by our insatiable appetite for cheap meat - leading to the suspected practice of feeding sheep with brain-wasting diseases (and thereby transmitting the illness) to cows.

With luck, the disease has not yet spread beyond this single farm or into the human food chain. The consequences of either – in millions of culled animal deaths or in potential human fatalities – will be disastrous for California and send thousands more into unemployment.

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